SEOUL (NPR) – Activists have been demonstrating against a U.S. missile system installed in Seongju County, South Korea, since 2017. Protesters stand near the entrance to the base, the site of a former golf course.
A short hike in Seongju county, some 135 miles southeast of Seoul, brings you to the top of a small mountain. To the north, you can see the high-rises of Gumi city. Just in front of you lies a former golf course, with an old clubhouse, some shipping containers on the grass and six mobile missile launchers with their tubes pointing north, toward North Korea.
The launchers are part of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD system that the United States installed in 2017.
Opponents of the system argue it was installed without due democratic process and in disregard of their opinion on the matter.
“We activists and residents think that the THAAD deployment here is illegal,” says activist Kim Young-jae, adding, “So we try to stay alert and notice any changes happening inside the base.”
In particular, they’re looking for signs that the missile battery and living quarters for U.S. and South Korean troops are being upgraded.
The activists have blocked the basis for trying to keep building materials out. Activist Kim says American and South Korean officials have not been forthright about the base.
“Publicly, they say this is a temporary deployment, in order to deflect opposition from residents,” he said, adding, “But in fact, they’ve taken all possible steps to make it a permanent deployment.”
Geopolitically, THAAD has become synonymous in South Korea with the country’s delicate balance between its main ally, the United States, and its main trading partner and bigger neighbor, China. Beijing vehemently opposes the missile system, fearing that it could be used to defeat Chinese missiles or that its radar could spy on China.
For the mostly elderly residents of Soseong-ri, a remote village of some 70 households close to the base, the prospect of THAAD modernization is worrying.
“This quiet village is now devastated,” says Park Soo Gyu, a resident, adding, “Some call it a prison without bars.”
He notes that a dozen activists have been prosecuted after clashes with the police.
Protesters often gather near the base to chant slogans and demand the removal of the missile battery.