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North Korea's threat against Guam, explained

We have military bases there.

SMS Cormoran II 100 Years Memorial Ceremony
The flag of the USA and Guam are seen during the SMS Cormoran II 100 Years Memorial Ceremony at U.S Agana Navy Cemetery on April 7, 2017 in Guam, Guam.
Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images for GUAM VISITORS BUREAU

Pyongyang says it is “carefully examining” plans for a missile strike on US military bases in Guam, which houses 6,000 American troops — and is well within range of North Korean weaponry.

And here’s why Kim Jong Un is threatening to destroy them: because they’re the bases that could be used in case of an unlikely war with North Korea.

The American military presence on Guam actually consists of two bases, Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam. Only 2,200 miles southeast of North Korea, it also houses American bombers, submarines, and other ships in the Pacific Ocean.

The B-1B bombers the US flew alongside South Korean and Japanese fighter jets after North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 28 took off from Andersen.

That response shows just how useful the bases on Guam can be. It allows US troops and military equipment to be “forward deployed,” which means they are already in the region and wouldn’t need to be sent from someplace else in case of conflict.

The Guam bases also help protect the 163,000 residents of the island, whose natives are US citizens by birth.

Following North Korea’s threat, Guam’s governor, Eddie Baza Calvo, released a YouTube video designed to try to allay any concerns residents might have. “I know we woke up to media reports of North Korea’s talk of revenge on the United States,” he said. “I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.”

It’s not clear North Korea could follow through on its threats. Even though Pyongyang has medium-range missiles that can reach the two US bases, it may not be able to reliably place a nuclear warhead on top and have it detonate once it reaches the island.

Even if Kim did launch missiles at Guam, the island is equipped with a THAAD missile defense system that is intended to stop a North Korean weapon before it reaches US territory. The system has successfully worked 15 out of 15 times in tests, but it has yet to be used in an actual war.

So the bases are clearly important to the US. It may be even more so down the line.

There may soon be more US troops in Guam

Javier Zarracina/Vox

In April, the chief of US Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris said around 4,000 Marines currently stationed in Japan will move to Guam between 2024 and 2028.

That’s both good and bad news. It’s helpful to still have the Marines in the region, allowing them to respond to a crisis. The problem is that it will take longer for them to get back to Northeast Asia if they are needed.

Either way, the bases will continue to serve as airports and docks for American planes and ships. The two B-1B bombers that exercised with Japanese fighter jets near the Korean peninsula on August 8 landed in Guam (this was different than the flights in July).

So while much of the focus is on North Korea’s new-found ability to reach US cities, it’s important to keep the tiny US island territory — and its military bases — in mind.