The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system, or Thaad, is being rushed into deployment at the site of an old golf course in Seongju amid growing tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
The earlier-than-expected move prompted protests by hundreds of local residents and was denounced by the favourite to win South Korea’s presidential election on 9 May.
The US and South Korea agreed last year to deploy Thaad, which comprises radar, interceptor missiles and launchers that, theoretically, can strike incoming missiles in mid-flight.
The move has angered China, which says the advanced system will do little to deter the North while destabilising the regional security balance.
South Korea’s defence ministry said some elements of Thaad had been moved to a site on what had been a golf course in the south of the country, the route kept clear by large number of police officers, some carrying riot shields.
“South Korea and the United States have been working to secure an early operational capability of the Thaad system in response to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threat,” the ministry said in a statement. The battery was expected to be operational by the end of the year, it added.
Television footage showed military trailers carrying large units, including what appeared to be launch canisters, being driven on to the site. Images showed protesters hurling water bottles at the vehicles and police trying to block them.
Late on Wednesday afternoon, thousands of police lined the single road leading to the entrance of the site, vastly outnumbering the hundreds of mainly older, local protesters who had been joined during the day by union and political activists from other parts of the country.
Baek-Gwang-soon, 73, who has lived in Seongju all her life, said she had been “speechless with anger” when the equipment arrived under cover of darkness.
“This is a quiet place, where we welcome outsiders with open arms,” Baek told the Guardian. “Now it’s being ruined by the arrival of American weapons that have turned us into a North Korean target.” Baek was holding a sign that read: “Is South Korea really a sovereign country?”
South Korean media reported that six launchers, several intercept missiles and at least one radar had been deployed in the area, where farmers say electromagnetic waves from the system’s radar pose a threat to public health and their melon crops.
The Pentagon said the deployment was a critical measure to defend South Korea and its allies against North Korean missile threats and it would be completed “as soon as feasible”.
The US and South Korean militaries have been reluctant to publicly discuss the progress of the deployment ahead of the South Korean presidential election.
Moon Jae-in, the frontrunner in the race, has said the new South Korean administration should decide on whether to deploy Thaad after gathering public opinions and having further discussions with Washington.
A spokesman for Moon said the decision to press ahead “ignored public opinion and due process”, and he demanded the deployment be suspended until the next administration was in place and had made its policy decision.
More than 10 protesters were injured during clashes with police. Kim Jong-kyung, co-head of a group of villagers protesting against the Thaad deployment, told Reuters some of them had sustained bone fractures. Kim said about 200 protesters, mostly residents in two towns near the battery site, rallied overnight and would remain near the location.
“We will continue our fight and there’s still time for Thaad to be actually up and running so we will fight until equipment is withdrawn from the site and ask South Korea’s new government to reconsider the plan,” Kim told Reuters by telephone.
A police official in Seongju, a town where Thaad is located, said police had pulled out from the location, and he was unaware of the reports of injuries.
Washington and Pyongyang have been ratcheting up pressure on each other in recent weeks, with the US sending an aircraft carrier group and nuclear submarine to the region and North Korea attempting more missile launches in defiance of layers of UN sanctions.
The Trump administration called the entire US Senate to the White House on Wednesday to be briefed by senior administration officials about the brewing confrontation. The unusual briefing underlines the urgency with which the Trump administration is treating the threat posed by Pyongyang’s continuing development of nuclear weapons and missile technology.
On Friday the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is due to chair a UN security council foreign ministers’ meeting on the issue in New York, at which the State Department said he would call once more for the full implementation of existing UN sanctions or new measures in the event of further nuclear or missile tests.
North Korea’s KCNA news agency said on Wednesday that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had supervised its “largest ever” live-fire drill to mark the 85th founding anniversary of its military, with more than 300 large-calibre, self-propelled artillery guns demonstrating their firepower at an event on the east coast.
The drill came instead of a nuclear test or the launch of a long-range missile. which had been feared, amid pressure from the US and China, North Korea’s sole major ally, which has been irritated by Pyongyang’s weapons development.
“The brave artillerymen mercilessly and satisfactorily hit the targets and the gunshots were very correct,” Kim said, adding that they “showed well the volley of gunfire of our a-match-for-a-hundred artillery force giving merciless punishment to the hostile forces”, according to KCNA.
A US submarine designed to carry 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles entered a South Korean port on Tuesday as the USS Carl Vinson carrier group steamed towards Korean waters in an effort to deter the North from a sixth nuclear test and more missile launches.
South Korea’s navy has said it plans to hold a joint drill with the US strike group in late April.
Donald Trump has vowed to prevent the North from being able to hit the US with a nuclear missile and has said all options are on the table.
The US began moving the first elements of the advanced missile defence system into South Korea in early March after the North test-launched four ballistic missiles.
Seoul and Washington say the sole purpose of Thaad is to defend against North Korean missiles, but China is concerned the system’s powerful radar can penetrate its territory and undermine its security.
South Korea accuses China of discriminating against some South Korean companies operating in China because of the Thaad deployment.
|Part of the Thaad system arrives in Seongju, South Korea. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters|
North Korea: US starts moving THAAD missile-defence system to South Korean deployment site
The US military has started moving parts of a controversial anti-missile defence system to a deployment site in South Korea, amid high tensions over North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.
South Korea's Defence Ministry said some elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system were moved to the site on what had been a golf course in the country's south.
"South Korea and the United States have been working to secure an early operational capability of the THAAD system in response to North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile threat," the ministry said in a statement.
According to the Yonhap news agency, the parts include two or three launchers, intercept missiles and at least one radar.
Television footage showed military trailers carrying large units including what appeared to be launch canisters being driven into the planned THAAD battery site.
About 8,000 police officers were mobilised and the main road leading up to the site was blocked earlier on Wednesday, Yonhap reported.
About 200 residents and protesters rallied in front of a local community centre, some hurling plastic water bottles at the vehicles.
THAAD move 'very inappropriate': Presidential frontrunner
The US and South Korean militaries have been reluctant to publicly discuss the progress of the deployment.
But candidates for South Korea's May 9 presidential election have debated whether the move should go ahead or be delayed until after the vote.
A spokesman for frontrunner Moon Jae-in said the move by the US military to deploy elements of the THAAD anti-missile defence was strongly regrettable.
Mr Moon's spokesman, Park Kwang-on, said in a statement the move was "very inappropriate" because it strips the next government of the right to make a policy decision on the controversial system.
The United States and South Korea agreed to deploy THAAD in response to the threat of missile launches by North Korea.
In early March, the US began moving the first elements of the advanced missile defence system into South Korea, after the North test-launched four ballistic missiles.
The move has angered China, which says THAAD will do little to deter the North while destabilising the regional security balance.
Washington and Pyongyang have been ratcheting up pressure on each other in recent weeks, with the US also sending a aircraft carrier group and a nuclear submarine to the region, and North Korea attempting more missile launches in defiance of UN sanctions.
The USS Michigan, a nuclear-powered submarine, arrived on Tuesday at the South Korean port of Busan for what was described as a routine visit to rest crew and load supplies.
On Wednesday, North Korea said its leader Kim Jong-un had supervised the country's "largest-ever" live-fire drill to mark the 85th founding anniversary of its military, with more than 300 large-calibre, self-propelled artillery guns demonstrating their fire power at an event on the east coast.
Parts of controversial US anti-missile system moved to South Korean site
Parts of a US-built anti-missile system designed to mitigate the threat of North Korean missiles have been moved to the planned deployment site in South Korea as tensions with the nuclear-armed country escalate.
Trucks hauling components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system rolled into the site in North Gyeongsang province, according to a statement from the South Korean Defense Ministry on Wednesday.
"Both South Korea and the United States have been working to secure the operational capacity of the THAAD system in preparation for North Korea's advanced nuclear-missile threat," the statement said.
"Therefore, this measure was to secure operational capacity by placing some parts of the available THAAD system at the deployment site."
The missile system has angered North Korea and also drawn sharp opposition from China, which sees it as a threat to its own security.
"We have expressed serious concern to the US and South Korean sides," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday.
"The US-South Korean deployment of THAAD in South Korea will harm strategic balance in the region and further stimulate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
"China strongly urges the US and South Korea to stop actions that would raise regional tensions as well as harm China's strategic and security interests by canceling the THAAD deployment and withdrawing relevant equipment."
He added that China will "firmly take necessary measures to safeguard its own interests."
In Seongju county, at the location of the THAAD site, around 4,000 police were present to ensure the equipment's delivery.
Around 400 protesters were present at a demonstration near the site, and police in riot gear held back protesters as the equipment rolled past on military trucks.
Hwang Soo-young, an activist with the government watchdog group, the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), was at the site of the protest Wednesday morning. She claimed that the protests turned violent as "police were pushing residents away."
She claimed six people were injured during the encounter, although CNN has not been able to independently verify the claim.
She said that vehicles with equipment "including radar, launchers and generators" started passing the village of Soseongri at around 4.45 a.m. (3.45 p.m. Tuesday ET).
Local complaints center around the lack of consultation over the decision to deploy the missile system near their homes. The voices of local people were "never heard, they never asked these people," she said.
The goal is to have the complete system fully operational by the end of this year but the US and South Korea have publicly stressed the need to speed up the deployment of the technology as tensions have mounted with Pyongyang.
On Tuesday, North Korea staged a pounding display of artillery guns, while the US began joint naval drills in the region with South Korea and Japan and the USS Michigan, one of the most powerful submarines in the American arsenal, docked in South Korea.
And later on Wednesday, the White House will hold an unusual briefing on North Korea, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and other officials outlining the threat for the entire Senate.
THAAD is designed to shoot down incoming short, medium and intermediate ballistic missiles that threaten civilian populations, just the type of weapons North Korea claims it has.
Each THAAD system is composed of five major components: interceptors, launchers, a radar, a fire control unit and support equipment, according to Lockheed Martin, the security and aerospace company that serves as the prime contractor for the equipment.
"Deploying THAAD is a critical measure to defend the ROK (Republic of Korea) people and Alliance forces against North Korean missile threats, as highlighted by the recent ballistic missile launches by North Korea," a statement from the office of the US Secretary of Defense said Tuesday.
"North Korea's unlawful weapons programs represent a clear, grave threat to US national security in the United States, the ROK and Japan."
Opposition at home
The announcement to deploy THAAD has also faced opposition from many residents of Seongju county, near the deployment site, and criticism of the decision to deploy it -- against the backdrop of the increased militarization of the Korean Peninsula -- was a key part of protests that helped bring down former President Park Geun-hye.
"The decision made by the government to deploy THAAD was not democratic at all," said Baek Ga-yoon, coordinator for the Center for Peace and Disarmament, which advocates for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
She accused acting-President Hwang Kyo-ahn of taking advantage of the political instability around Park's impeachment to press ahead with THAAD's deployment "without any agreement from the National Assembly and the villagers of Seongju."
Koreans go to the polls on May 9 to choose Park's replacement.
The upcoming election is expected to result in a swing to the left, likely in favor of the Democratic United Party's Moon Jae-in, who narrowly lost to Park in 2012 and has led opinion polls since her ouster.
Moon's party has been critical of the THAAD agreement and suggested it should be renegotiated, saying Park should have sought the approval of the National Assembly before deployment began.
"Presidential candidate Moon Jae-in has consistently stated that the deployment of THAAD should be decided by the next government through taking into account sufficient public consultation, consensus and consideration of our national interests and the ROK-US alliance," a statement released by Moon's spokesman, Park Kwang-on, read.
"It is better to discontinue the deployment of the equipments and pass the final decision to the next government after going through public and national consensus and consultation between ROK-US."