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THAAD missile-defense system is controversial

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/19/2017 Thomas Maresca
In this May 2, 2017 photo, a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is installed at a golf course in Seongju, South Korea. © Kim Jun-beom, AP In this May 2, 2017 photo, a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is installed at a golf course in Seongju, South Korea.

SEONGJU, South Korea — This rural county was best known for growing small yellow melons that are a popular summertime treat called chamoe, but now it's home to a controversial U.S. missile-defense system. 

Last month, the United States began deploying the giant system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, to guard against possible attacks from the country's communist neighbor, North Korea. The system has drawn sharp condemnation from China and created divisions within South Korea. 

Its hasty deployment before South Korea's presidential election this month became a campaign flash point, and newly elected President Moon Jae In, a liberal willing to have talks with the North, called for a review of the process.

A poll in March showed 50.6% of South Koreans support its deployment. For people in Seongju, 135 miles southeast of Seoul, THAAD is not welcome.  

“This is our town, and we don’t want (THAAD) here,” said Kim Kang Tae, 69, a farmer.

Protesters have been a constant presence in Seongju since July, when the area was chosen as the site for THAAD. Banners reading “No to THAAD” and “Hands off, USA!” line a main road.

Residents worry about THAAD making their sleepy rural area a military target and about potential health effects from the system, which uses a powerful radar to monitor activity in North Korea.

Kim said concerns about THAAD’s impact on crops are already hurting his livelihood. “The day after they brought it here, melon prices dropped,” he said. The county, pop. 50,000, supplies about 70% of the chamoe melons sold in South Korea.

It is not only farmers opposed to THAAD: China has been an outspoken critic of the deployment, fearing the system could be used to spy into Chinese territory.

China retaliated last month by ordering travel agencies to stop selling group tour packages to South Korea, according to Korea's Yonhap News Agency. China is the largest single source of tourists to South Korea.

“China is firm in its resolve to oppose the deployment of THAAD in (South Korea) and will resolutely take necessary actions to safeguard its own security interests," China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said last month. 

Chinese citizens boycotted Lotte Group, a large Korean conglomerate that supplied the land for THAAD on a golf course it owns. Authorities shut down most Lotte supermarkets in China over the past two months, ostensibly for safety code violations.

Kim Kang Yeon, a peace activist from Seoul who has joined protests in Seongju, said THAAD’s deployment raises regional tensions.

“They say THAAD is here for safety, but it will put Korea in greater danger,” Kim said. “We can’t resolve North Korea’s missile tests and nuclear weapons with a military approach. The proper way of solving the problem would be a peaceful dialogue with North Korea, the U.S. and China.”

The United States has about 28,000 troops in South Korea, and THAAD would be effective in protecting against North Korean missile attacks at strategic southern targets such as Kunsan Air Base and the port of Busan. It is too far away from Seoul, home to 25 million people, to protect against a North Korean strike there.

In Soon Boon, 63, a Seongju farmer, said the THAAD system is there only to defend U.S. troops. “We want peace, we don’t want war,” she said. “We want the U.S. to bring their weapons back to their own country. We never wanted these weapons here.”

President Trump rattled ties with South Korea when he said last month that he wanted South Korea to pay for THAAD, which he estimated at $1 billion. "We're going to protect them," Trump said. "But they should pay for that, and they understand that."

Although Moon, South Korea's new president, promised to seek a parliamentary review of the defense system, many said they believe he will not fundamentally alter U.S.-South Korean relations. 

“I think he will try to find a way to pursue denuclearization on the one hand and at the same time have some kind of dialogue with North Korea. But he has said that the alliance with the U.S. is the foundation of Korea’s diplomacy, and I think there will not be much of a problem,” said Yoon Young Kwan, former South Korean foreign affairs minister and professor emeritus of international relations at Seoul National University.

THAAD, which became operational May 1, has been put to its first use, detecting a missile launched by North Korea on May 15, according to South Korea’s Defense Minister Han Min Koo. 

Supporters argued that the system plays an important role against an increasingly belligerent North Korea.

“When it comes to defensive systems, the truth is, the more the better,” said Kim Tae Woo, a professor at Konyang University and former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “THAAD is just one part of a whole deterrence system we need in order to protect this nation from the North Korean nuclear threat.”

He said that although strained ties with China over THAAD will have an economic impact, South Korea’s military alliance with the United States has been the cornerstone of economic development over the past 60 years.

“If there is a collapse of the alliance (with the U.S.) all of a sudden, the impact on South Korea’s economy would be much more enormous,” he said.



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