SEONGJU, South Korea — The first protest signs come into view just down the road from where the U.S. military has positioned an anti-ballistic missile system in this rural hillside county about 150 miles south of the fortified border that divides the Korean Peninsula.
“Stop U.S. militarism in South Korea,” reads one, strung up by angry locals who say last month’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system thrust their little corner of the world into the center of America’s brinkmanship with North Korea.
“THAAD may have a strategical value for Washington, but what Americans should know is that, for Koreans, this is about people’s lives,” 53-year-old strawberry farmer Park Soo-gyu said on a recent morning as he crouched inside a Seongju community center, where anti-war activists from across South Korea gather daily to express frustration over the missile defense system.
His comments underscore the political discord that the deployment has unleashed in South Korea, whose masses have long welcomed but also have been wary of accepting unconditionally U.S. military equipment and troops since the 1950-1953 war with the North.
Analysts here say Washington is deaf to that discord, even though THAAD became a bellwether issue this month in South Korea’s presidential election, which was won handily by a leftist human rights lawyer who sharply criticized the anti-missile system on the campaign trail.
President Moon Jae-in, who was sworn in May 10, is calling for a less-militarized and more diplomatically conciliatory policy toward the North that seems destined to clash with the Trump administration’s defense-focused strategy for countering Pyongyang’s ballistic missile threat.
Mr. Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, agreed to host the THAAD system last year, but its deployment didn’t begin until March when President Trump ordered it amid a moment of political chaos in Seoul. (The conservative Ms. Park was being impeached amid a corruption scandal.)
Mr. Moon subsequently rose to the fore by claiming the U.S. rushed the deployment without considering the potential fallout for South Korea. The big question now is whether he will follow through on a campaign promise to review the system and possibly push for its removal.
The answer may depend the other major geopolitical player concerned with THAAD: China.
Beijing has criticized Seoul for hosting the system and has retaliated by exerting economic pressure, most notably with a cap on Chinese tourism that has triggered a loss of billions of dollars to the South Korean economy.
China is by far South Korea’s biggest export market. With the looming prospect that Beijing could expand its punishment on Seoul, Mr. Moon seems eager to appease Chinese leaders. After taking a congratulatory call from Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 11, he announced that a South Korean delegation would soon head to China to work through the tensions over THAAD.
Dagger aimed at China?
Beijing argues that Washington is exploiting Seoul and that U.S. officials are disingenuous about THAAD’s true purpose.
While THAAD is relatively small — consisting mainly of a truck-mounted rocket launcher — Beijing says the system’s powerful “X-band” radar is designed to reach well beyond the Korean Peninsula and into China to target and spy on its military assets.
U.S. officials say that’s nonsense. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the only reason Mr. Trump pushed through THAAD’s deployment was because of provocations from North Korea, which launched a series of ballistic missiles and conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests last year.
“There is no other nation that needs to be concerned about THAAD,” Mr. Mattis said on a visit to Seoul in February. “It’s a defensive system.”
Regional analysts — particularly those in Japan, a potential target of North Korean aggression — are circumspect.
“Let’s not be naive. THAAD has to be dual-purpose or even beyond,” said Yoichi Kato, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a senior fellow at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank.
“Of course the immediate threat is North Korea, but the real strategic challenge for the U.S. is posed by China,” Mr. Kato said in an interview. “North Korea may not have succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on its missiles and also may not have delivery systems that can reach the U.S. mainland yet. But China already has both the operational nuclear weapons and the intercontinental ballistic missiles that can, together, pose existential threats to the continental U.S.
“Of course China does not demonstrate aggressive intentions as North Korea does, but China has the capabilities,” Mr. Kato said. “And you have to prepare for the capabilities, because the intentions can change very quickly. That’s national security strategy 101.
“Given this strategic reality, it is only natural for the regional states like Japan to assume that the deployment of THAAD to South Korea is not just about North Korea but also about China,” he said, asserting that such an action enhances the credibility of the extended U.S. deterrence on which Japan entrusts its nuclear security.
At the same time, Mr. Kato said, Beijing regards THAAD as a direct challenge to its nuclear deterrence capacity against the U.S. because the system is perceived as being able to intercept missiles launched from inside China.
“China’s strategists always refer to the growing missile defense capabilities of the U.S. and its allies in the region as the very reason why China is building up its second-strike capabilities, such as nuclear ballistic missile submarines to maintain its nuclear deterrence against the U.S.,” he said. “THAAD is exactly the case in point from the Chinese point of view.”
Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington, said Chinese concerns over THAAD are overblown because the system’s technical design would limit its effectiveness against Beijing’s ballistic missile capabilities.
“Chinese criticism of THAAD is not based on any legitimate security concerns,” Mr. Klingner told The Washington Times last year when debate over the system was first surging in Washington. “[Beijing] perceives anything related to U.S. military development in the Pacific as a dagger aimed at the heart of China.”
A village in the middle
Lin Soonboon would rather talk about her crops than nuclear weapons. The 64-year-old has spent more than half her life farming potatoes and garlic in the tiny village of Seosongri.
Everything changed a few months ago, when word spread that the U.S. military would position the “hit-to-kill” technology of THAAD on a former golf course near the village. Ms. Lin and other female elders from Seosongri suddenly became activists. Now they are leaders of the daily protest gatherings at the community center.
“THAAD is a weapon of war,” Ms. Lin told The Times, as people of all ages banged drums and danced in a circle nearby. “I don’t want a war here. I want more Americans to be conscious about this issue. Korea and America should work together forever, but this will only be possible if more Americans think about peace.”
Ms. Lin spoke of rumors about potentially harmful radiation from THAAD’s powerful radar. It’s unclear who started the rumors, which South Korean and U.S. military officials say are baseless. But Ms. Lin believes them.
“In three to four years, it will turn the soil around here to dead land we can’t farm anymore,” she said. “I learned this from television and experts.”
Such claims are at the center of a legal challenge Ms. Lin and more than 2,000 other residents have filed in South Korea’s constitutional court, claiming the government violated their rights by secretly rushing THAAD’s authorization without public oversight or a legally mandated environmental impact assessment.
“Korean constitutional law provides basic rights, including the rights to peaceful living, health, good environment and to participate in public policy,” said Song Kiho, a Seoul-based lawyer representing residents in the claim. “The Korean government violated the constitutional law that protects these basic rights.”
It remains to be seen how the challenge — along with a parallel claim lodged against South Korea’s defense minister by a group of liberal lawyers — will play out.
But there are indications that the Moon administration may throw its weight behind the claims, both of which are being financed by the influential Lawyers for a Democratic Society. Mr. Song noted that the new South Korean president was once an active member of the group, also known as Minbyn.
A nation divided
There is a religious element to the public outcry over THAAD in Seongju.
A group of monks from the Won sect of Buddhism, whose founders once lived in the county, are holding a nonstop meditation protest near the former golf course where the system is positioned.
“We’ll keep praying here until the THAAD goes away,” a 53-year-old monk named Won Ik-son told The Times, as a helicopter swirled overhead and two-dozen South Korean military police stood guard nearby.
The golf course once belonged to the Lotte Group, one of South Korea’s biggest business conglomerates, which made it available to U.S. forces as part of an obscure land swap following heated domestic friction over other possible locations for THAAD.
Seoul should have done more to prevent it, said Mr. Won, who asserts that THAAD is situated insultingly close to his Buddhist sect’s sacred ground.
“There are many monasteries and temples around here, and the holy site is nearby,” he said, adding that the road leading to the golf course had been used by monks on pilgrimages to honor Won Buddhism’s founders, who lived in the area during the early and mid-1900s.
Now it is blocked while about a dozen monks carry out their round-the-clock protest in shifts under a blue plastic canopy on the side of the road. “This is our resistance to the government’s violation of our freedom of religion,” said Mr. Won.
“The primary teachings of our grand master was about peace,” the monk said. “The deployment of THAAD is accelerating the pace of war. The whole Korean Peninsula could be destroyed at any time by conventional weapons. The deployment of THAAD hasn’t done anything but escalate that.”
His comments couldn’t stand in starker contrast to those from THAAD’s supporters in South Korea, many of whom were fervent backers of Ms. Park, the ousted conservative president who approved the system.
Conservative hard-liners are holding protests of their own, calling for Ms. Park to be exonerated and asserting that it is about time a South Korean president made such a serious move to counter the North Korean threat.
“THAAD is for the security of South Korea. It’s a minimum defense against North Korean missiles. It doesn’t escalate anything,” Kwak Imyong, 66, told The Times before this month’s presidential election.
Mr. Kwak spoke near a cluster of pop-tents in downtown Seoul, where pro-Park activists have been holed up since her impeachment. A sign at the encampment reads: “Because we must deter pro-North Korean sympathizers from their conspiracy to communize the South under the pretext of the unjustifiable presidential impeachment.”