On Wednesday the U.S. started installing a controversial anti-missile defense system in South Korea designed to protect the country from threats made by Pyongyang. The decision to move on installations ahead of schedule didn’t go over well — it was greeted by fierce protests from locals, denounced by the frontrunner in the campaign for the South Korean presidency, and criticized by China, which views the defense system as a potentially destabilizing initiative.
The first parts of the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system were deployed earlier-than-expected in response to the growing threats from North Korea, according to the South Korean defense ministry: “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 Pentagon said the move was a critical measure to defend South Korea and its allies from the threat from Pyongyang.
The missile defense system will be deployed in the southeastern part of the country, on land formerly occupied by a golf course and obtained by the U.S. military from the South Korean government.
Despite the move taking place at unannounced at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning, several hundred angry Seongju residents turned out to protest the move, throwing water bottles at the military trailers, which were carrying what appeared to be launch canisters to the site. Locals are worried about rumored health hazards linked to the system’s radar — though the South Korean defense ministry has rubbished such notions.
Moon Jae-in, who is the frontrunner in the May 9 presidential election and has previously said he would review the decision to install THAAD, denounced the early deployment as it “ignored public opinion and due process.” He added that the decision should have been delayed until the new administration was in place.
China has also been critical of the new system, claiming it would destabilize an already tense situation in the region. “China strongly urges the United States and South Korea to stop actions that worsen regional tensions and harm China’s strategic security interests and cancel the deployment of the THAAD system and withdraw the equipment,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday.
As well as deepening divisions in the region, Beijing believes THAAD’s radar system can be repurposed by the U.S. to spy deeper into its territory. “China will resolutely take necessary steps to defend its interests,” Geng warned.
“Bluster and rhetoric”
Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at South Korea’s Troy University, believes many of the comments made by officials in the region are designed to appease domestic audiences, who can “create a lot of background noise and complicates things at international level,” he told VICE News.
“North Korea creates different types of threats and challenges to the US and China,” Pinkston said. “But neither can resolve those problems unilaterally that would leave them better off. So everyone is dissatisfied and frustrated, hence we are hearing a lot of bluster and rhetoric.”
In Beijing Wednesday, China’s military marked its own momentous milestone when it launched the first home built aircraft carrier, seen as an important step in President Xi Jinping’s efforts to extend China’s military reach.
Here to stay
Like China, North Korea views THAAD as a security threat despite reassurances from the U.S. that the system is purely defensive. When the plans to deploy the THAAD system were announced earlier this year, Pyongyang responded by warning that the peninsula could be brought “to the brink of nuclear war.”
Pinkston believes that despite the criticism and protests, THAAD is here to stay and only a radical reversal of course by North Korea would change the situation.
“I think it’s a done deal and won’t be reversed unless North Korea changes course,” he said. “But for the North Korean leadership to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, that would mean revolutionary change. So people won’t have much choice but to get used to it, if they haven’t already.”
On Tuesday, North Korea made its latest show of military strength, carrying out its largest live-fire military drill to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of its army. State-run news agency KCNA said Wednesday that Kim Jong Un had overseen the exercises. “The brave artillerymen mercilessly and satisfactorily hit the targets and the gunshots were very correct, he 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.”