SEOUL, South Korea — Until recently, the world considered North Korea largely a menace on the Korean Peninsula, its military most threatening to the 25 million people of Seoul and the sprawling area around the South Korean capital.
But with President Trump warning of unleashing “fire and fury” against North Korea and the North demonstrating its missiles can fly far beyond the peninsula, people across Asia are reconsidering. Increasingly, countries in the region, especially those hosting American military bases, are asking: Are they potential targets of North Korean retaliation?
On Wednesday, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, singled out the American territory of Guam as a potential target. North Korean missiles have also recently landed not far from the coast of Japan, a crucial United States military ally. South Korea remains the most likely target of any North Korean counterattack should the United States take military action to try to stop the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
Guam, a Key American Outpost
North Korea warned on Wednesday that it was considering a strike that would create “an enveloping fire” around Guam, a United States territory that is home to vital American military operations. Guam’s governor, Eddie Baza Calvo, played the down threat of a North Korean attack in a video address on Wednesday.
“I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas,” he said, referring to the nearby Northern Mariana Islands chain, a United States commonwealth. Mr. Calvo said officials and military commanders were “prepared for any eventuality.”
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Guam is a potential target because it is a strategic American military outpost and home to nuclear-equipped bombers that can strike North Korea. Just this week two United States B-1 bombers flew from Guam over the Korean Peninsula. And North Korean missile tests suggest it is within range of the country’s arsenal.
While Guam is used to threats from North Korea, several residents said the current situation felt more dangerous — partly because of recent advances in the North’s weapons program, but also because of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric.
An American Army sergeant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to make political statements in public, complained that Mr. Trump had needlessly elevated the risk of a military confrontation with North Korea with his remarks.
Some residents of Guam chafed at the news media’s coverage of the North’s threat, which they said focused on the fate of service personnel stationed in Guam rather than on the roughly 160,000 civilians living in the American territory.
“We are Americans, we serve in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any state, but all anyone is talking about is how a strike would impact military personnel and their families,” said Leslie Travis, a 37-year-old attorney.
“The rest of us are proverbially out of sight and out of mind. If someone threatened a strike on California, the national concern wouldn’t be limited to service people at Travis Air Force Base.”
A Potential Attack on South Korea
The conventional wisdom holds that any North Korean retaliation would target American Air Force and military bases in South Korean towns like Kunsan and Osan, as well as major ports in the South to hamper and delay the arrival of American military reinforcements. Seoul itself lies within range of North Korean artillery and rockets that are deployed in large numbers along the border.
The North Korean military warned on Wednesday that it would “burn up all the objects” in border regions of the South, including Seoul, “the moment the U.S. reckless attempt at pre-emptive attack is spotted” and that “the whole of the southern half” of Korea would be its target.
But North Korea has a multitude of options, especially ones in which its enemies would not quickly be able to trace the origin, like cyber attacks, analysts said.
It could also, for example, seize Japanese, South Korean and American citizens and hold them hostage, using them as a leverage to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies, especially should Mr. Trump launch a military attack without consulting American allies, they said.
North Korea could mobilize its sleeper spies in the South or use drones to attempt terrorist attacks, possibly involving chemical and biological agents, analysts said. In recent months, South Korea has found several North Korean drones flying into its airspace.
North Korea proved it had no qualms about using chemical weapons when its agents hired two female assassins to kill Kim Jong-nam, Mr. Kim’s estranged half brother, with the chemical agent VX in the Kuala Lumpur international airport in February.
“If a bunch of people start getting sick, how do you know for sure?” said Scott W. Harold, an associate director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy. “It’s all nightmare scenarios we talk about.”
Although South Korean news media gave prominent coverage of the latest escalation between North Korea and the United States, South Korea in general seemed little disturbed by either Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” comment or the North’s threat to attack Guam. Most South Koreans appeared to consider the tit-for-tat just another episode in the decades-old ebb and flow of tensions and jitters they have grown used to.
No hoarding or other signs of panic were reported in South Korea on Wednesday. In contrast, back in 1994, when rumors spread that the United States was evacuating its non-combatant citizens from the South, many South Koreans panicked, stocking up on food in the event of war.
The Threat to Japan
In Japan, specialists said that the most likely targets for any North Korean attack would be Tokyo, the political and commercial capital with some 35 million residents in its greater metropolitan area, and American military bases scattered around the country.
The United States has close to 50,000 military personnel in Japan under the countries’ decades-old alliance. About half are on the small southern island of Okinawa, while the rest are spread over dozens of bases located on Japan’s larger main islands.
Municipalities around Japan, including some close to American bases, have conducted evacuation drills in recent months as concern has grown over the North’s missile program. The government has aired public service announcements on television explaining how to take cover from an incoming missile, prompting some critics to accuse it of alarmism.
In the last year, North Korea has tested a series of missiles, like the Scud-ER, Rodong and Hwasong-12, which it said would be used to hit American military bases in Japan and Guam, as well as American aircraft carriers approaching the Korean Peninsula.
When Mr. Kim inspected some of those missile tests, the North Korean news media deliberately showed maps indicating that these missiles would target American bases in Japan, as well as major air and seaports in South Korea, said Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
Despite the threat to Japan, the country’s leadership has aligned itself publicly with Mr. Trump’s efforts to confront the North over its weapons programs.
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, sought to frame Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” comment as part of a broader strategy to confront North Korea.
“He’s saying that the United States is putting all options on the table,” he said. “It’s extremely important that the Japan-U.S. alliance further strengthens its ability to deter and respond.”
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