On August 25, every household mailbox in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province was stuffed with a white envelope from the county chief. In each envelope was a single piece of paper entitled, “A Letter to County Residents regarding THAAD Deployment.”
“I, too, oppose THAAD deployment in Seongju,” wrote County Chief Kim Hang-gon, “But the government is intent on deploying the THAAD system to protect the nation’s security and the people’s lives from North Korea’s rash provocations. If THAAD is deployed at the Seongsan artillery unit because we merely oppose and fail to offer an alternative, it will leave an indelible scar in the proud history of Seongju. My request to change the deployment site to another location was an unavoidable decision in order to minimize the damage to county residents from the government’s immutable pursuit of THAAD deployment and protect Seongju county as well as the lives of the county residents.”
That same day, the county hall received boxes of returned envelopes, some with handwritten notes from angry residents who rejected the county chief’s appeal for understanding.
Defense Ministry Behind County Chief’s Betrayal
County Chief Kim Hang-gon became the target of Seongju residents’ ire when he held a surprise press conference on August 22 to propose the Defense Ministry choose an alternative site for the controversial U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). The proposal contradicts the official position that the Seongju residents had maintained since becoming the front line in the fight against THAAD deployment in late July – that THAAD should not be deployed anywhere in Korea.
Saenuri Party Representative Lee Wan-young and approximately 70 government employees were among the attendees at the county chief’s press conference. Chief Kim’s announcement came only 3 weeks after President Park Geun-hye, presumably caught off guard by the unrelenting opposition from Seongju’s residents, met with national assembly representatives of North Gyeongsang Province to invite suggestions for an alternative deployment site.
Outside the press conference, 450 police officers guarded the county chief’s office and blocked Seongju residents, who had learned of the press conference and rushed there to protest. “At the very least, we deserve to hear directly from the county chief himself,” yelled one resident, tearing up while the police dragged away another resident.
200 Seongju residents, including members of the Seongju Task Force to Oppose THAAD Deployment, held their own press conference on the same day to declare, “The [county chief’s] press conference contradicts the position of the residents and is invalid.”
“We have consistently said no to THAAD deployment anywhere on the Korean peninsula,” said Seongju Task Force Spokesperson Bae Eun-ha, “The county chief is out of touch with the residents and is alone in inviting THAAD deployment.”
While some members of the Seongju Task Force supported the county chief in his decision, others, it seems, were kept in the dark. “We didn’t even know about the county chief’s press conference,” said Seongju Task Force Co-chair Baek Cheol-hyun.
The Seongju county chief’s surprise announcement seems at least in part due to pressure from the Defense Ministry. On the same day as the press conference, a Defense Ministry officer was reportedly in the hallway of the Seongju county building and was overheard talking on the phone saying, “The proposal to discuss a new location should come from the county chief… That means we have to polish the document very carefully.”
A local news reporter confronted him and asked, “Where are you from? Who are you talking to about the content of the statement?” Without responding, the officer quickly ran into the county vice-chief’s office.
The Defense Ministry has reportedly nominated the Lotte Skyhill Country Club, a golf course in Seongju’s Chojeon township as a possible alternative site for THAAD deployment. The golf course is located 18 km northwest of Seongju’s county office and 680 meters above sea level.
County Chief Attempts to Sabotage Opposition
After announcing his support for THAAD deployment at a new site, the Seongju county chief then refused to keep the county hall open during the nightly candlelight vigils and cut off electricity in the main yard where the vigils take place. He also banned the use of the meeting hall that had previously been used by the Seongju Task Force.
Seongju County Vice-chief Kim Se-hwan meanwhile showed up uninvited at a meeting in Chojeon Village, near the new proposed site for THAAD deployment. On August 23, the day after the Seongju county chief’s press conference, the Chojeon Development Association held a meeting to discuss opposition to THAAD Deployment.
Seongju Vice-chief Kim interrupted the meeting to say, “Look at what the rallies have become. We were opposed strictly to THAAD deployment in Seongju, but now they’re talking about no THAAD anywhere in Korea and are anti-government, anti-U.S. and are cursing the president, the provincial governor and the county chief. The yard in front of the county building is not public property; it’s state property.”
But Kim’s remarks only provoked a backlash from the approximately 30 Chojeon residents at the meeting. “Chojeon is also part of Seongju,” they yelled and demanded Kim turn back on electricity for the nightly candlelight vigils.
The residents ended the meeting by resolving to participate actively in the nightly candlelight vigils; hang a public banner announcing Chojeon Village’s opposition to THAAD deployment; and actively participate in a human chain protest action planned to mark the 50th day of the candlelight vigils on August 27.
“Chojeon Village alone can’t fight this,” said a member of the Chojeon Development Association, “We have to add our numbers to the ongoing candlelight vigils.”
Candlelight Spreads to Gimcheon City
North of the Lotte Skyhill Golf Course, the new proposed site for THAAD deployment, is another town called Nongso, part of Gimcheon City. Within 7 kilometers of the golf course is a concentration of apartment buildings and schools that belong to Gimcheon Innovation City (also known as Yulgok).
In a statement released on August 22, the Gimcheon City Council demanded the Seongju County Chief Kim Hangon “immediately withdraw his proposal for a new site for THAAD deployment” and noted, “The Lotte Skyhill Country Club, currently under consideration as the alternative site for THAAD deployment may technically fall within Seongju County but borders Gimcheon, and the damage caused by THAAD will mostly affect the citizens of Gimcheon.”
The statement continued, “The 140,000 citizens of Gimcheon demand that the Defense Ministry, which threatens the lives of the people of Gimcheon and pits one region against another, stop its search for an alternative site for THAAD deployment. We resolve to oppose the unilateral and undemocratic decision for THAAD deployment at the Lotte Skyhill golf course and fight to defend the lives and property of the 140,000 citizens of Gimcheon.”
On the same day, residents, civic leaders and elected officials of Gimcheon City held a meeting to establish the Gimcheon Task Force to Oppose THAAD Deployment and only two days later, held a mass demonstration of close to 10,000 people.
“Gimcheon citizens don’t want Seongju’s leftovers!” announced Gimcheon City Mayor Park Bo-saeng at the demonstration. “If you come together in unison, I will fight THAAD deployment to the end,” he pledged before shaving his head in an unplanned act of protest. Other members of the newly formed Gimcheon Task Force joined him in the action.
“If THAAD causes no damage, then why are they trying to change the site from the place they had declared as the optimal site?” said Kim Se-woon, co-chair of the Gimcheon Task Force and deputy speaker of the Gimcheon City Council, “THAAD will never be deployed in Gimcheon!”
“When they announced THAAD deployment in Seongju, we watched the fire from the sidelines. Now that the sparks are flying towards our homes, we’re asking for the fire to be put out,” confessed Gimcheon City Councilmember Park Hui-ju, “Let’s not screw up twice. Let us act so that we’ll have no regrets.”
“Chilgok opposed, so then Seongju. Seongju opposed, so now Gimcheon. The site for THAAD deployment keeps changing – this is the thinking of the Gimcheon residents,” explained Saenuri Party Representative Lee Cheol-woo, who represents Gimcheon, in an interview with Donga Ilbo. “The people of Gimcheon ask, ‘If the electromagnetic waves from the THAAD radar are not harmful to people then why are they moving it from Seongju to Gimcheon?’ and I don’t have a good response,” he added.
Saenuri Rep’s Pro-THAAD Remarks Outrage Gimcheon Residents
Representative Lee Cheol-woo, a proponent of the THAAD system, angered Gimcheon residents by suggesting that THAAD should be “deployed secretly.”
In a television interview on August 24, Lee opposed THAAD deployment in his district and explained, “The golf course is technically in Seongju, but the THAAD radar, if deployed there, would be pointed at Gimcheon, so for all intents and purposes, the new proposed site is Gimcheon. It’s only 7 kilometers from Gimcheon Innovation City. People have moved there with expectations but now worry that their property values will fall. There are houses within 1 kilometer of the golf course.”
He then said, “How can we publicly disclose the location of a weapon system as important as THAAD? It should classified state information. We should restart the discussion from the beginning and deploy the special weapon system in secret.” In other words- don’t place the controversial weapon system in his district but put it somewhere else quietly.
When Representative Lee stood up on stage at the first candlelight vigil in Gimcheon on August 24, he was showered with expletives and flying water bottles from angry residents. When Lee tried to defend his previous remarks, they yelled, “Lee Cheol-woo, get off the stage! Go home!”
Candlelight Glows Brighter in Seongju
Meanwhile in Seongju, the nightly candlelight vigils outside the county hall only grow stronger. On August 22, the day the Seongju county chief turned his back on the residents and cut off the electricity outside the county hall, members of the Seongju Task Force to Oppose THAAD Deployment quickly organized to make sure the candlelight vigils continue. They turned on a generator to power minimal lighting and audio equipment, and nearby stores offered use of their restrooms. Vigil attendees lit up the county hall yard with their candles.
The approximately 1200 people gathered at the vigil on August 22 had no kind words to say about the county chief. For some, it was their first time attending a candlelight vigil.
“I came to the candlelight vigil for the first time yesterday,” said 41-year old Kim Guk-dong during the open mic session. “I ate rice grown in Seongju with soybean soup before coming today. Maybe the Task Force members [the ones who agreed to propose a new deployment site] ate livestock feed. Why are they acting like hogs? County Chief Kim, I have never in all my life blamed you for anything. You even shaved your head and went on a hunger strike, but now the county chief from the White House in Washington must be here. Did you eat foreign meat and change your mind? During the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, our forefathers abandoned Hanyang and ran away. During Japanese occupation, Lee Wan-yong tried to sell off our country. Is the county chief trying to sell off Seongju County because of THAAD? I have nothing to lose but the shirt on my back. No one in Seongju has anything to lose. We don’t need THAAD in Korea. And only we can defend Korea.”
More Roadblocks Ahead for Park’s THAAD Plan
While the Defense Ministry’s expected announcement of the Lotte Skyhill golf course as the new THAAD deployment site is already fueling opposition beyond Seongju, it may also face objection from the Won-Buddhist community, according to the Hankyoreh.
“The golf course is 1.9 km away from a sacred site where the denomination’s second head dharma master Chongsan was born,” the Hankyoreh writes. The location includes Chongsan’s home, the temple Daegakjeon and a dharma hall.
The government may also face obstacles if purchasing the Lotte Skyhill golf course requires National Assembly consent. Article 60 of the South Korean Constitution requires parliamentary consent for “treaties which will burden the State or people with an important financial obligation.”
So far, the Defense Ministry has tried to avoid discussion on THAAD in the National Assembly on the grounds that the deployment costs “are borne by the United States and would not cause any additional financial burden for the South Korean people.” But if the government needs state funds to purchase the golf course, it could lead to a deadlocked political battle between the governing and opposition parties in the National Assembly and foil the Park administration’s plan of THAAD deployment by 2017.
By Hyun Lee