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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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South Korea Divided on THAAD

Kim Chan-ju

Jul. 21, 2016

South Korea is accepting an advanced missile defense system from the US, and the reactions it's provoking.

South Korea has decided to accept an advanced missile defense system from the US, but opinion about the move is divided.

President Park Geun-hye's government says it's in response to Pyongyang's continuing nuclear tests and missile launches.

"Deploying THAAD to the Korean peninsula will improve our missile defense posture, which is a critical aspect of our defensive strategy," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the commander of US Forces Korea's Eighth Army.

The new missile defense system, known as THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, consists of advanced radar and interceptor missiles. When the radar detects a ballistic missile, interceptors are launched to destroy it at high altitude.

The anti-ballistic missiles have a range of 100 to 200 kilometers. The Defense Ministry says the system would allow the military to better protect South Korean territory and drastically improve its defensive capabilities.

"We need THAAD to be deployed for our country's safety," says one Seoul resident.

Opinion polls show that while around half of the people surveyed support the government's decision, almost one in 3 are against having THAAD in South Korea.

Hundreds of people took to the streets to protest THAAD. They claim it will only provoke North Korea, rather than make their lives safer.

"I’m worried that THAAD will not only strain diplomatic relations, but could also increase the threat of war. Our country is sandwiched between China and Russia, as well as the US and Japan," says one critic of the move.

The North has launched dozens of ballistic missiles this year, including some that may be newly developed. It also carried out its fourth nuclear test in January and has kept up its threats against the South.

"We will take physical response measures to neutralize the place of deployment as soon as South Korea determines where THAAD will be installed," an announcer said on North Krean TV on July 7.

The day after Seoul announced it would deploy THAAD, North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submarine. Then, on Tuesday, Pyongyang launched 3 more missiles.

President Park Geun-hye's administration knows its decision could have international consequences too. China has already made its opposition clear.

“China will absolutely take the steps necessary to protect its national interests," says Lu Kang, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry.

Beijing says THAAD's advanced radar will be able to reach northeastern China, and could be used to monitor its military there.

Park's government is eager to reassure South Korea's biggest trading partner.

"THAAD will not target any third country. It will only be used to counter nuclear and missile threats from North Korea," said South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Ryu Jeh-seung.

And THAAD is making people in the southern county of Seongju angry. They were not consulted -- just told that the system would be installed in their county.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn visited to explain why it should be installed there, but was met with hostility. The angry crowd kept him there for more than 6 hours.

Some are worried the North could launch a preemptive strike on the area, while others are concerned about the effects of electromagnetic waves.

Despite the government’s safety reassurances about the deployment of the missile system, anger among Seongju residents continues to grow. So much so, people are shaving their heads in protests.

Lee Byung-hwa has been growing Korean melons, known as "chamoe," for nearly 30 years. The Seongju region produces more than 70 percent of the country's crop.

Lee says installing THAAD in the area could hurt the image of his melons. He's worried people could think the radar will somehow affect the fruit.

"Local farmers are furious about the government's decision to put the radar in our town. I'm too angry even to work," Lee said.

Despite objections from people in Seongju and further afield, the South Korean government says the THAAD system will be operational by the end of 2017.

NHK World's senior correspondent Kengo Okamoto joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: Kengo, why did the South Korean government choose Seongju as the location?

Okamoto:Well, South Korean officials considered the issue from various perspectives. Firstly, placing the missile defense unit in Seongju will enable them to cover up to two-thirds of the country. If the unit is situated north, coverage will be smaller. As you can see here, the interceptor missiles can cover 200 kilometers in a northerly direction and 100 kilometers to the south. And secondly, by installing the system in the southern part of the country, it's safer from being targeted by the North. Weapons like short range rockets cannot reach there.


And thirdly, the defense radar will cover less Chinese territory when it's installed in the southern part. South Korean media report that it will have a shorter range than 2 of the same radar systems in Japan. The Japanese ones have a range of more than 1,000 kilometers. South Korea's system will have a range of 800 kilometers at most, so South Korean officials allegedly respect China's wishes that it shouldn't come under radar coverage.

Shibuya: So it looks like the capital is out of the coverage area. How are people in South Korea reacting?

Okamoto: Yes, you're right. THAAD's missiles don't cover Seoul, where 20 percent of the country's population lives. But the Park administration doesn't consider the system appropriate to protect Seoul from the North. The North Korean military has heavily deployed its forces along the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. They could launch Scud missiles or multiple rockets at low altitude within a short time. Government officials say the PAC missile system is more suitable. They say they're confident they'll be able to protect Seoul by replacing old PAC defense systems with new ones.

Shibuya: How do you see the relationship between South Korea and China, since China has stressed its opposition to any THAAD deployment in South Korea?

Okamoto: That's right. South Korea's leaders have deliberated for some time whether or not the country should install THAAD. The main sticking point has been China's strong opposition. South Korea wants to be on good terms with China politically, as China is its most important economic partner. But things seem to be changing due to North Korea's repeated threats.

South Korean officials hope China can exercise its influence on North Korea and ask Pyongyang to stop its provocative acts, including missile launches and nuclear tests. But its efforts so far appear ineffective. So the Park administration has come to expect more of the US and Japan.

I think the hardline stance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is widening the gap between South Korea and China and, on the other hand, bringing the relationship between South Korea, the US and Japan closer.

Shibuya: North Korea has reacted sharply to the THAAD decision. What do you think it will do in the future?

Okamoto: It's hard to predict. The THAAD system will be operated by US military personnel. And, as the radar covers all of the North, it's really a shocking decision for Pyongyang. Every mobile missile launch system movement in the North could be clear to the US and the South.

North Korean state-run media reported on Wednesday that Kim Jong Un closely watched a recent missile launch drill. It says it was carried out by the troops charged with attacking US bases in the South. And nuclear weapons researchers reportedly participated as well. The report makes it clear that the North is preparing measures to counter the arrival of THAAD.

It seems to me that North Korea won't stop threatening its neighbors, both in word and deed, unless it agrees to peace talks with the US.