Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Worries grow as tensions rise between US, North Korea

Published:Thursday | August 10, 2017 | 8:00 AM
In this May 15, 2017, file photo, tourists walk through a shopping district in Tamuning, Guam. Security and defence officials on Guam said on Wednesday, that there is no imminent threat to people there or in the Northern Mariana Islands after North Korea said it was examining its operational plans for attack.

HAGATNA (AP):

Residents of the tiny Pacific island of Guam say they're afraid of being caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the US and North Korea after Pyongyang announced it was examining plans for attacking the strategically important US territory.

Though local officials downplayed any threat and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was unruffled as he headed to Guam to refuel on his trip back to Washington from Malaysia, people who live and work on the island said they could no longer shrug off the idea of being a potential target. Guam serves as a launching pad for the US military.

"I'm a little worried, a little panicked. Is this really going to happen?" said Cecil Chugrad, a 37-year-old bus driver for a tour bus company in Guam. "If it's just me, I don't mind, but I have to worry about my son. I feel like moving (out of Guam) now."

About 163,000 people live on the island that spans only about 12 miles (19 kilometres) at its widest. They are used to the threats from North Korea. But advances in the country's nuclear programme, paired with fiery rhetoric from President Donald Trump, have raised the already high animosity and heightened worries that a miscalculation might spark conflict between the nuclear-armed nations.

Reports suggested North Korea mastered a technological hurdle needed to strike the US with a nuclear missile. The advances were detailed in an official Japanese assessment and later a Washington Post story that cited US intelligence officials and a confidential Defence Intelligence Agency report.

In response, Trump on Tuesday threatened the communist country "with fire and fury." On Wednesday, the North Korean army said in a statement that it was studying a plan to create an "enveloping fire" in areas around Guam with medium- to long-range ballistic missiles.

'Everyone's afraid'

On his flight back to Washington, Tillerson said he never considered re-routing the trip to avoid refuelling in Guam.

"I do not believe that there is any imminent threat," Tillerson told reporters aboard the plane. "What we're hopeful is that this pressure campaign (including sanctions), which the entire world now has joined us in, and with the engagement of China and Russia, two of North Korea's closest neighbours that they can begin to persuade the regime that they needed to reconsider the current pathway they're on and think about engaging in a dialogue about a different future."

While it is extremely unlikely that Pyongyang would risk the assured annihilation of its revered leadership with a pre-emptive attack on US citizens, some residents of Guam are concerned.

"If anything happens, we all got to be ready, be prepared, and pray to God that it doesn't happen," Daisy Mendiola, 56, said after finishing lunch with her family at a restaurant near Hagatna. "Everyone's afraid, because we're dealing with powers that're beyond us."

Other residents are worried about the political atmosphere and the government's ability to find a peaceful solution.