SEOUL — After South Korea announced on Wednesday a rural southern county would be the site of an advanced American missile defence battery — the planned deployment of which has angered China and North Korea — thousands of local residents demonstrated against the plan.
Villagers rallied under a sweltering sun to condemn the choice of their county, Seongju, 217km southeast of Seoul, for the so-called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system, known as THAAD, The New York Times reported.
The residents fear it will threaten their health and ruin their agricultural economy, but South Korea and the US say the missile and radar system is needed to defend the country and American forces stationed here against North Korean missiles.
The Times, quoting the Yonhap news agency, said the protesters chanted “We oppose THAAD with our lives!” and held banners that bore the same slogan.
Local political leaders, wearing red headbands, wrote the same vow in blood after cutting their fingers, a form of protest that has a long history in South Korea. Some of the politicians and protest leaders also began a hunger strike, it said.
“If we lose our precious land to THAAD, we will be ashamed before our ancestors and posterity,” the report quoted Kim Hang-gon, who oversees the Seongju county government, as telling the crowd.
The protesters included aging melon farmers. The county, which has a population of about 50,000, provides 60 per cent of all melons sold in South Korea.
The Times said the opposition could bode ill for the American and South Korean militaries, which hope to install the THAAD battery by late next year. In the past, villagers have joined forces with environmental and political activists to initiate prolonged and often violent campaigns against new US military bases.
Most South Koreans support the country’s military alliance with the US, citing the need to deter the North, it said.
But many also fear that any expansion of the American military presence could worsen tensions with the North and with China, and in some cases could damage local ways of life.
After South Korea and the US announced the agreement to deploy THAAD last Friday, local news reports mentioned Seongju and several other towns as possible sites. Protests against THAAD have since been held in those communities. Some demonstrators expressed concern that hosting the system could make their towns high-priority targets for North Korea in the event of war.
AFP said the deployment, when completed by the end of next year, will be able to cover up to two-thirds of South Korea from North Korean missiles. It will also protect key industrial facilities, including nuclear power plants and oil depots.
Quoting Yonhap, it said although military bases in the South will also be protected by the missile system, Seoul and its surrounding areas will be left out. This could mean the military deploying more US Patriot anti-air and missile defence systems in these areas.
North Korea threatened on Monday to take “physical action” against the planned deployment of the powerful anti-missile system. The move has also angered Beijing and Moscow, which both see it as a US bid to boost military might in the region.
China said the move would “seriously damage” regional security in northeast Asia.