‘Please get out because we want peace, not war’
South Koreans close to anti-missile defence site oppose militarisation and fear for health
Lynn Soon-bun sits on the floor of a small makeshift Won Buddhist temple and gives her quiet but firm view on the US army’s anti-missile defence system installed a kilometre or two up the road.
“Leave from Korea! she says quietly through an interpreter. “American force leave from Korea. Yes – no war.”
Lynn, a tiny 62-year old mother of two, wears a floral blouse and a pink face mask, and speaks on behalf of the 100 or so residents of Soesong-gil, a village in the mountains of south-central Korea, some 300km from Seoul.
The village is a place of rural, agricultural simplicity – a scattering of homes through small fields given over mainly to rice but with vegetables, maize, beans, courgettes and melons – where life has not changed much over the years.
But the 21st century is here in places.
Highway 45, a poking finger of modernity, slices its way on through the mountains by twists and turns, avoiding the villages. And just up the road from Lynn’s home there was until last year the Skyhill Country Club, an upmarket, 18-hole golf course favoured by the well-heeled from large towns further down the valleys.
But the club is no more since the owner, Lotte, a Japanese-Korean food, retail, financial and petrochemical conglomerate, handed it over to the Korean ministry of defence, for use by the US army. The golf club is now home to Thaad (Termal High Altitude Area Defence), an anti-missile defence system that aims to knock out North Korean Kim Jong-un’s conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles should he ever fire them at South Korea or Japan or Guam or mainland America, as opposed to just into the Sea of Japan.
The deployment of Thaad, whose full operational readiness has yet to be confirmed, is contentious for some South Koreans and has given rise to a determined protest, camped on the roadside at Soesong-gil for over a year.
A dozen or so protesters are there permanently under the watchful eye of the police. Relations between the two sides appear cordial and mutually tolerant, if stand-offish.
The road from the village to the former golf club is lined with banners proclaiming messages such as “Thaad Out!” and “No to Thaad!” Cairns of granite boulders painted brightly, some with peace and ban-the-bomb markings on them, mark the start of the camp that is defined by half a dozen tents and tables at which the protesters sit, happy to explain themselves to anyone who asks.
At the nearby town of Seongju-gun, the protesters hold a candlelight vigil every night and on Sunday last held a rally on the train station plaza in Gimcheon, another nearby and sizable town. For many there, Thaad represents what they see as America’s “militarisation” of the Pacific.
In Soesong-gil, while that view may be shared, some are also concerned that Thaad’s powerful radar with its electromagnetic waves could adversely affect their health and crops, and they are sceptical of assurances to the contrary.
For Lynn, supporting the protest derives as much from being simply anti-war and fearing that Thaad makes a target of her village. The solution – to the missile defence system, the current crisis between the US and North Korea, and indeed the partitioned Korean peninsula – is for everyone just to go away and leave Korea alone, she argues.
“We are the same nation so they will not attack us,” she says of North Korea, even though that is exactly what happened on June 25th, 1950, when the communist north, encouraged by China, invaded the south, thereby starting the three-year Korean War, won by the south because the US was on its side.
Thaad is part of a suite of defensive responses that the South Korean government and the US, which has some 30,000 troops based permanently in the country, hope will help stop a war even as it starts.
The Thaad mobile anti-missile launchers, of which there are six stationed in South Korea, can communicate with other Thaad systems on US warships in the East Sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan. They are linked in turn to Patriot Missile batteries stationed in Japan.
Potential death toll
Between them, it is hoped that any genuinely threatening North Korean missile launch, as opposed to Trump-baiting test-firing provocation, could be knocked out of the sky before it reached its target – wherever that might be.
The problem is, if such an attack was launched but fended off by Thaad, total war could still break out and it is difficult to see how huge casualties could be avoided, especially in and around Seoul and its environs, a concentration of some 20 million people vulnerable to missile and artillery attack from the North.
On Monday, US general Joseph Dunford discussed the military situation with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, along with Moon’s defence minister and security adviser. Asked what she would say to the general if offered the opportunity, Lynn replied: “Please get out and go back to your country because we want peace, not war.” And with that, she exits the protest camp at Soesong-gil and walks home, waving goodbye.