- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2017

SEONGJU, South Korea | Buddhist monks in this hillside county 135 miles south of Seoul have spent the past 59 days in a nonstop meditation protest along a road leading to where the U.S. military recently positioned an anti-ballistic missile system designed to counter the threat of incoming warheads from North Korea.

While Washington’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system has triggered outrage among peace activists across South Korea, the protest here by monks from the Won sect of Buddhism, whose founders once lived in the nearby hills, has added a religious element to the backlash.

“We’ll keep praying here until the THAAD goes away,” a 53-year-old monk named Won Ik-son told a Washington Times reporter visiting the area, as a helicopter swirled overhead and about two-dozen South Korean military police stood guard nearby.

The police were fanned out across the entrance of the road leading to a former golf course where components of what U.S. military officials describe as the “hit-to-kill” technology of THAAD are now positioned. The course previously was owned by the Lotte Group, one of South Korea’s biggest business conglomerates.

A village about a mile away was the site of a clash between several thousand protesters and police last month when the system was first being deployed to the course, which Lotte made available to U.S. forces as part of a land swap deal following political friction over other possible locations for THAAD in South Korea.

Division over THAAD has burned through the campaigns ahead of South Korea’s presidential vote on Tuesday, with liberal front-runner Moon Jae-in calling for a government review of the system’s deployment if he wins the election.

Dozens of local residents and antiwar activists from around the country continue to gather daily at a community center in the village to protest, asserting that the system’s deployment represents an unnecessary and dangerous U.S. military escalation that has made the area a target for potential missile strikes from North Korea — or potentially China, which also has expressed outrage over THAAD.

But it’s up the road from the village, closer to the golf course, that the Won monks are carrying out their round-the-clock meditation session, arguing that the South Korean government should have done more to prevent THAAD’s deployment, which the monks say is insultingly close to the holiest sites of their Buddhist sect.

“There are many monasteries and temples around here and the holy site is nearby,” Mr. Won told The Times, asserting that the actual road leading up to the course was previously used year round by monks on pilgrimages to honor Won Buddhism’s founders, who lived in the area during the early- and mid-1900s.

Now the road is blocked, while group’s of about a dozen monks at a time switch off in shifts to carry out the continual meditation protest under a makeshift, 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 grandmaster was about peace,” he said. “The deployment of THAAD is accelerating the pace of war. The whole Korean Peninsula could be destroyed at anytime by conventional weapons. The deployment of THAAD hasn’t done anything but escalate that.”

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