The North Korean army’s announcement that it is examining operational plans for attacking Guam after rising tensions with the US has brought more global attention to the tiny US territory in the Pacific than it has had in decades. Here is a rundown on the island and its strategic importance.
The strip of land in the western Pacific Ocean is roughly the size of Chicago, and just 6km wide at its narrowest point. It is about 3,500km southeast of North Korea, much closer than it is to any of the US. Hawaii is about 6,500km to the west. Its proximity to China, Japan, the Philippines and the Korean Peninsula has long made the island an essential possession of the US military.
How it became US territory
Guam was claimed by Spain in 1565 and became a US territory in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Japan seized it for about two years during the Second World War. In 1950, an act of Congress made it an unincorporated organised territory of the US. It has limited self-government, with a popularly elected governor, small legislature, and non-voting delegate in the US House of Representatives. Residents do not pay US income taxes, or vote in the general election for US president. Its natives are US citizens by birth.
The US keeps a naval base and Coast Guard station in the south, and an air force base in the north that saw heavy use during the Vietnam War. While already taking up 30 per cent of the island, the US military has been seeking to increase its presence by relocating to Guam thousands of Marines who are currently based in Okinawa, Japan. Protecting the island is the US Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad), which is used to shoot down ballistic missiles. Last month, the US twice flew a pair of supersonic bombers that took off from Guam over the Korean Peninsula in a show of force after two North Korean tests of ICBMs.