South Korea on Wednesday identified a military base in the southern town of Seongju as the future site for a U.S. anti-missile interceptor and radar unit that some say will shift the regional balance of power.
China and Russia have condemned the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea threatening to attack the site ahead of the announcement.
Deploying THAAD at Seongju would help “more firmly secure the safety of our people in one-half to two-thirds of South Korea’s entire territory,” South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a statement quoted by the Yonhap news agency. THAAD would help to thwart missile attacks on nuclear power plants, oil refineries and military targets, it added.
A hilly and sparsely populated district, Seongju is sufficiently far from the North Korean border to be out of range of Pyongyang’s high-caliber multiple rocket launchers.
The base is home to an anti-aircraft missile unit staffed by 170 troops, South Korean media said. The unit defends military bases as far afield as the U.S. command centers at Osan and Pyeongtaek, and the U.S. naval base at Chinhae on the southern coast, as well as Camp Carroll, a U.S. Army facility located nearby.
The Korea Herald said selecting Seongju as the deployment site for the THAAD system could lead to criticism that the location leaves the metropolis around Seoul, home to 20 million people, vulnerable. But it noted the government has budgeted to acquire PAC-3 Patriot missiles to deploy around the nation’s capital by 2018.
Seongju is 240 km south of Seoul.
Meanwhile, the deployment, which is scheduled for the end of next year, may fuel local antagonism toward the U.S. military akin to the current situation in Okinawa, where protests are frequent.
On Wednesday, thousands of residents of Seongju took to the streets, chanting slogans and burning a mock missile, Yonhap said, citing local reports.
It said a team of senior South Korean officials and THAAD experts traveled to the town of 40,000 to ease opponents’ ire.
Protesters on Saturday aired complaints that the region has not received development since U.S. troops were first stationed in the area in 1960. On Monday, South Korean President Park Geuyn-hye told senior officials to press ahead with a project to relocate an airport used by military and civilian flights in the nearby city of Daegu after complaints over noise and other problems.
For some South Koreans, the anti-U.S. feeling is accompanied by unease over possible retaliation by Beijing, which on Friday said deploying THAAD would damage regional security.
China and Russia typically oppose moves they see as strengthening U.S. influence close to their borders.
Separately, North Korea said this week it is severing a back-channel communication link with the U.S. conducted through its mission to the United Nations in New York. However, it was unclear if this was over THAAD or in response to Washington naming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as an individual to be targeted by new sanctions.