Seoul – The U.S. military started moving parts of an anti-missile defense system to a deployment site in South Korea on Wednesday, triggering protests from villagers and criticism from China, amid tension over North Korea’s weapons development.
The earlier-than-expected steps to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system were also denounced by the frontrunner in South Korea’s presidential election on May 9.
South Korea’s ministry of defence said elements of THAAD were moved to the deployment site, on what had been a golf course, about 250 km south of Seoul.
“South Korea and the U.S. 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 battery was expected to be operational by the end of the year,” the ministry said.
The U.S. and South Korea agreed in 2016 to deploy the THAAD to counter the threat of missile launches by North Korea.
They said that it is solely aimed at defending against North Korea.
However, China said the system’s advanced radar can penetrate deep into its territory and undermine its security, while it would do little to deter the North, and was adamant in its opposition.
“China strongly urges the U.S. 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.
“China will resolutely take necessary steps to defend its interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a briefing.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and is seen as crucial to U.S.-led efforts to rein in its bellicose, isolated neighbour.
The U.S. began moving the first elements of the system to South Korea in March after the North tested four ballistic missiles.
South Korea has accused China of discriminating against some South Korean companies operating in China because of the deployment.
The liberal politician expected to win South Korea’s election, Moon Jae-in, has called for a delay in the deployment.
He said the new administration should make a decision after gathering public opinion and more talks with Washington.
A spokesman for Moon said moving the parts to the site “ignored public opinion and due process” and demanded it be suspended.
Television footage showed military trailers carrying equipment, including what appeared to be launch canisters, to the battery site.
Protesters shouted and hurled water bottles at the vehicles over lines of police holding them back.
The Pentagon said the system was critical to defend South Korea and its allies against North Korean missiles and deployment would be completed “as soon as feasible”.
More than 10 protesters were injured, some of them with fractures, in clashes with police,’’ Kim Jong-kyung, a leader of villagers opposing the deployment said.
He said that about 200 protesters rallied overnight and they would keep up their opposition.
“There is 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,” Kim said.
A police official in the nearby town of Seongju said police had withdrawn from the area and were not aware of any injuries.
The U.S. and North Korea have been stepping up warnings to each other in recent weeks over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting U.S. President Donald Trump.
He has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear missile.