South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn was met with a shower of eggs and water bottles on July 15 when he visited Seongju County in North Gyeongsang Province, the site chosen this week to house the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
Defense Ministry Policy Director Ryu Je-seung announced earlier this week on July 13, “The US-ROK joint working group proposed, and the Defense Minister approved, Seongju, North Geyongsang Province as the optimal deployment site that will maximize the THAAD system’s military effectiveness, ensure the security of the region’s residents and have no effect on their health and environment.”
The announcement follows the July 8 agreement between the United States and South Korea to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea – a move that was immediately protested by the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi strongly criticized the decision and went on to accuse the United States of “using another country’s insecurity as a foothold to enable its own security.”
Prime Minister Hwang, who had come to Seongju to calm residents, outraged over the government’s unilateral decision, was met with bitter opposition. As his entourage tried to make its way out of the county building parking lot, residents blocked his minibus with tractors and held him captive for six hours.
THAAD – Not for Defense of Korea
The THAAD system comes with a powerful radar that can cover more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). China and Russia have expressed concerns that the radar could be used as a possible method of American surveillance against them.
A joint working group of the US and South Korean militaries had been searching for the ideal deployment site for the THAAD system since March 2016 and finally decided on an air defense base in Seongsan Village, Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. The air defense base currently houses an Air Force artillery unit with several MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air homing missiles along with some 170 troops.
The US and South Korean governments plan to relocate the MIM-23 Hawk missile unit to a different base to make room for the THAAD system. And as the THAAD radar needs to be at least 500 meters away from its missile launcher, it is projected that THAAD deployment will require another base.
Critics note that stationing the THAAD system far from the inter-Korea border means it cannot protect Seoul and the capital region, where approximately 20 million people reside. The military says PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles – to be acquired and deployed by 2018 – would be used to intercept Pyongyang’s short-range Scud missiles, which conventionally fly at an altitude of 20 to 60 kilometers.
But critics also point out that while Seoul would fall outside the coverage area of a THAAD system based in Seongju, key US bases located in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province and Gunsan, Jeolla Province do fall within its range of operation. They allege that the purpose of THAAD deployment was never for the defense of the capital but for the protection of key military assets of US Forces in Korea (USFK).
Seongju Residents Oppose THAAD
Residents of Seongju County – a mostly agricultural region and the country’s largest producer of Korean melons – have formed an emergency task force (hereafter the Task Force) to oppose the THAAD deployment. “For the livelihood and autonomy of our region, we will not spare any means to oppose the THAAD deployment,” they announced.
The air defense base in Seongju is within 1.5 kilometers of a populated residential area and the radiation emitted by the THAAD’s high-powered radar will jeopardize the health of 50,000 residents, the Task Force says.
The THAAD system’s AN/TPY-2 Radar emits high-power, high-frequency electromagnetic waves in order to detect missiles far away. Radars are designed to emit electromagnetic waves and measure the returning waves that bounce back after hitting objects in the distance to detect the distance and shape of potentially hostile targets. In order to detect missiles from further distances and with more precision, the AN/TPY-2 Radar is designed to emit electromagnetic waves at high frequencies of 8 to 12 gigahertz.
60% of county residents are melon producers, and the Task Force is also concerned that radiation emitted by the THAAD radar could harm the region’s agricultural base.
Since the announcement Seongju as the THAAD deployment site, Seongju County Governor Kim Hyang-gon and County Assembly Chair Bae Jae-man have started a hunger strike outside the county office. “I will go to Guam to check for myself the radiation harm and noise pollution caused by the THAAD radar there,” said Kim, “The Defense Ministry did not conduct an environmental impact assessment before making its decision on THAAD deployment. This process is flawed. We are preparing legal action.”
5000 Seongju County residents held a protest rally outside the county building on July 13. After the rally, 200 of them got on a bus to the Defense Ministry in Seoul. “We won’t leave until Defense Minister Han Min-koo and the national assembly representative for our district (Saenuri Party Rep. Lee Wan-yeong) come and talk with us,” they said.
Many Seongju County residents have shaved their hair in protest and are holding nightly candlelight vigils to oppose the THAAD deployment. Students have walked out of school and marched to the county building to protest the missile defense system. “If THAAD is so great, tell the Defense Minister to put it in front of his parents’ house,” one resident said. “We’re going to have to lie down on the road to keep them from bringing THAAD here,” said another.
Nationwide Opposition Grows
Other regions are also voicing opposition to THAAD. The Daegu/North Gyeongsang Task Force against THAAD Deployment held a press conference outside the Saenuri Party headquarters in North Gyeongsang province on July 14 and demanded a reversal of the decision to deploy the THAAD system in Seongju.
“The fact that THAAD is useless in the defense of South Korea has been confirmed in a U.S. Defense Department report, a U.S. congressional report, and a South Korean Defense Ministry report,” said a statement released by the Task Force, “The Defense Ministry says the THAAD system will be installed 400 meters above sea level so the region below it is safe, but in the case of Guam or Japan, the THAAD radar is pointed out towards the sea. We don’t know if anyone has assessed the safety risk of a THAAD radar pointed inland towards populated residential areas.”
It added, “The optimal site for THAAD deployment does not exist in Seongju or anywhere else in South Korea. THAAD deployment must be completely withdrawn.”
Civil society and religious groups across the country plan to launch a national campaign to oppose the missile defense system. A press conference in downtown Seoul on July 14 was attended by 127 representatives of 44 organizations, including Kim Yeong-ju, general director of the National Council of Churches in Korea and Ji Eun-hui, former Minister of Gender Equality. The Council for Peace on the Korean Peninsula is calling for nationwide candlelight vigils against THAAD on July 16 and July 23.
By Hyun Lee
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