Protests as US starts to deploy anti-missile system in South Korea

Presidential candidates in May 9th election divided over system deployment

The US military has begun to install a controversial missile defence system in South Korea, prompting protests from opponents of the move, which the Seoul government said was aimed at countering the growing nuclear threat from North Korea.

The deployment has divided presidential candidates ahead of an election on May 9th, with liberals criticising the move but conservatives saying it is necessary as North Korea looks set to conduct its sixth nuclear test.

Early on Tuesday, US troops began installing equipment for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) battery at a golf course in Seongju, 300km southeast of Seoul, sparking fierce protests from local residents.

Seoul and Washington agreed the deployment last year after signs of growing belligerence from North Korea, but an environmental impact assessment was still being carried out and the start of the installation came as a surprise.


However, since the decision was reached to install the system, which is supposed to intercept and destroy short and medium-range ballistic missiles, tensions have ratcheted up on the Korean Peninsula, with the North staging missile tests and a live-fire drill and the US deploying a nuclear strike force to the region.

South Korea is also in political limbo and it is currently led by an interim government under acting president and prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. Former president Park Geun-hye has been impeached and is in jail awaiting trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling.

Poll topper

Leading the presidential election polls is Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party, and his campaign criticised the installation, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

“We express strong regret over the Thaad [installation] taking place in disregard of the people’s will and procedures,” Park Kwang-on, public relations chief of Mr Moon’s election campaign, told a news briefing.

Mr Moon has argued the final decision on installing the anti-missile system should be made by the incoming president after the May 9th election.

Candidate Ahn Cheol-soo of the centre-left People's Party said the deployment should go ahead in accordance with the law, despite having earlier opposed the system.

"It is regrettable that [the system] was suddenly installed in the middle of the night even before the environmental survey was carried out," Son Kum-ju, chief spokesman of the Ahn campaign, told a separate press briefing.

China has also reacted angrily to the installation of the Thaad system, which it sees as a strategic threat to its own missiles, and Beijing has overseen a boycott of South Korean companies operating in China, especially those linked to Lotte, which owned the golf course on which the battery is being sited, before selling it to the government.

Visitor numbers to South Korea from China plunged by 40 per cent in March after the Beijing government barred tour groups from going there.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing