Korea nuclear crisis spurs Guam independence bid

With North Korea’s apparent testing of its first (or perhaps second) hydrogen bomb yesterday, the White House is again warning of a “massive military response.” Last week, North Korea for the first time fired a missile over Japanese land territory, specifically the northern island of Hokkaido, and last month for the first time tested an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile. (NYT, NYT, AP) Pyongyang’s threat to launch missiles toward Guam put the unincorporated US island territory briefly in the news—although the actual threat was to fire into waters some 40 kilometers off Guam. (AP) Pyongyang has threatened to strike Guam before, but now looks as if it may be developing the capability to make good on its threat. Amid all the hype, just a few stories have made note of how Guamians themselves are reacting to all this. And growing sentiment on the island holds that the only thing they are getting out of their current US territorial status is being made a nuclear target.

Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base hosts US strategic bombers, and was for many years home of the Pentagon’s main stockpile of nuclear weapons in the western Pacific, although The Diplomat reported in April that conversion of the USAF’s B-1 bomber fleet from nuclear to conventional began in 2007 and ended in 2011.

The Washington Post refreshingly notes that Guamians are getting tired of media references to their island as “the tip of the spear” (because it is the closest US territory to North Korea and such potential Asian-Pacific flashpoints the South China Sea), “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier,” and “Fortress Pacific.”

“This American territory is not enjoying democracy, where citizens can determine who their leader will be and what laws will be put upon them,” WaPo quotes the island’s Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo, who had called a (non-binding) vote for November on Guam’s political status. “It’s up to our people to decide which way to go: whether to be fully in union with the United States or to chart a separate course.”

A Decolonization Commission has been established to report to Calvo on whether to proceed with the plebiscite, which would give Guamanians three alternatives to their status as a US territory. This currently gives Guamians US citizenship but without the right to vote in presidential elections or have a voting representative in Congress (the same status as Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands). WaPo provides the following break-down of the three options (their verbatim):

Statehood, which would give Guam all the rights (and burdens) of being a state, albeit a very small one, with a population less than one-third that of Wyoming.

Free association with administrative power, like Palau and the Marshall Islands.

Independence, which would make Guam a (minuscule) sovereign state.

But Columbia Journalism Review calls out the WaPo account for repeated use of terms like “very small” and “miniscule,” saying the “main effect is to render the island’s colonial subordination as natural and rational.”

Since the WaPo account, Pacific Daily News has reported that the referendum has been put on hold following a federal court ruling that the island’s plebiscite law is unconstitutional because it imposes “race-based restrictions”—that is, limiting the vote to indigenous Guamians. This is the usual dilemma that has held up refernenda on the status of several colonized territories around the world, including the French Pacific holding of New Caledonia.

Independence advocates admit this option has historically has been the least popular of the three. But they also say the independence option is becoming more popular amid Trump‘s rhetoric about unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea.

“Trump is really the epitome of, ‘This is not a country we want to be part of,'” independence activist Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero told the Washington Examiner.

Guamians held a peace rally on Aug. 14, after North Korea’s threat, bringing out dozens to a public square in the island’s capital Hagatna, who chanted “Peace, not war, that’s what our island is for.” The rally was animated with pride in the island’s indigenous culture, with demonstrators blowing kulo or shell trumpets, the women wearing traditional floral head crowns called mwarmwars and the men in sinahi, or traditional loincloths. (AP)

Guam’s indigenous people are known as the Chamorro, and the island has recently seen an initiative to preserve their language (rendered CHamoru), which has been eroding under the hegemony of English. (Guam Daily Post)

Guam has been ruled by the US since the 1898 Spanish-American War, which resulted in the traditional island territories of the Chamorro people being divided. It also resulted in the crushing of their aspirations for self-rule. According to a Smithsonian historical outline by Doug Herman of the National Museum of the American Indian:

The reason why Guam remains a US territory, while the rest of Micronesia is not, can be traced to an ironic accident of history and geography. The American negotiators neglected to inquire about the Spanish claims to the rest of the Marianas and much more of Micronesia, and Spain quickly sold these other islands to Germany. Thus began a rift between the Chamorros of Guam and those of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Guam has persisted under American rule to the present day, while the northern islands experienced first almost two decades of benign German rule, then nearly three decades under the thumb of the Japanese empire, which took all of Germany’s Pacific territories at the outset of World War I.

Right after the US takeover, the leading families of Guam met and established a legislature in anticipation of a democratic, representative government. To their surprise, the island was instead placed under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Navy, and was ruled by a series of military governors who, though generally benign, wielded absolute authority… Guam was run like a well-ordered battleship under what was essentially martial law.

In a series of Supreme Court rulings known as the Insular Cases of 1901, it was decided that new territories might never be incorporated into the union and were to receive only unspecified “fundamental” Constitutional protections. They were to be governed without the consent of the governed in a system that lacked the checks and balances that underlie the principle of limited government.

The United States has been very selective about what it officially memorializes concerning Guam’s role in World War II:

While the bombing of Pearl Harbor still lives on in infamy in American memory, the bombing of Guam—four hours later—is virtually forgotten. In a brief but locally well-remembered air and sea attack, Japanese troops seized control of the small American colony and began an occupation that lasted three years. More than 13,000 American subjects suffered injury, forced labor, forced march or internment. A local priest, Father Jesus Baza Dueñas, was tortured and assassinated. At least 1,123 died. To America, they are forgotten.

The battle to re-conquer Guam from the Japanese, however, does stand out, at least for war buffs. The National Park Service commemorated it with a park spanning seven different locations. It virtually dominates the landscape. It was not until 1993, with the 50th anniversary of the liberation approaching, that Congress was moved by Guam’s congressional representative, Robert Underwood, to overtly recognize the suffering of the Chamorros. Public Law 103197 authorized construction of a monument to commemorate, by individual names, those people of Guam who suffered during the occupation.

The US Interior Department notes that the Guam Organic Act of 1950 conferred US citizenship on Guamanians and finally established the territory’s government. The Act also transferred federal jurisdiction over Guam from the Navy to Interior.

Guam also saw a protest mobilization in 2010 to oppose US plans to take local lands for a new military base to house troops relocated from Okinawa (where local citizens have been waging their own protest campaign against the US military presence). Japan’s Kyodo news agency reports that the Pentagon intends to carry out this troop transfer by 2024.