On January 8, South Korean protesters flocked to the little-known Seongju County in South Korea to protest the US-installed THAAD missile modernization upgrades. This is after fears that the small village of Soseong-ri would be one of the first targets of North Korea in the event of an invasion.

“We activists and residents think that the THAAD deployment here is illegal,” said Kim Young-jae, a South Korean activist in a report by NPR.

According to the report, these activists have set up a blockade toward the entrance to the military base so that construction materials and other equipment could not pass through.

While an invasion of North Korea is unlikely to happen, protestors and villagers alike did not approve of the THAAD installation in 2017. They say they are being caught in between the conflicts between the United States and China, and North Korea as the hermit kingdom is supported by the Chinese despite UN sanctions.

Beijing officials have continually opposed the THAAD system based in South Korea as it fears it could be used to spy on their operations and be deployed against them. Reports have also stated that the US plans to integrate South Korea’s THAAD system into its PAC-3 missile systems. The PAC-3 Missile Defence System would integrate the sensors of THAAD and Patriot Missile batteries in South Korea, Japan, Guam and Alaska under a unitary launch control system.

 

In response to these systems being deployed in the South Korean county, Beijing imposed economic sanctions on South Korea, forcing them to go into bilateral talks with China.

What Exactly Is THAAD?

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor successfully completes an intercept test conducted by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thaad-launch-1016475-1170x610_(1).jpg
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor successfully completes an intercept test conducted by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). (US Missile Defense AgencyCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is a Lockheed Martin designed anti-ballistic missile defense system having the main aim of shooting down different types of ballistic missiles in their terminal phase through a hit-to-kill approach. Such a system was created in response to Iraq’s Scud attacks in 1991. The mobile anti-ballistic missile system can shoot down short, medium, and intermediate ballistic missiles, making it an important military response if North Korea decides to attack South Korea with its own set of IRBMs like the Hwasong line of missiles.

THAAD interceptors have no explosive warhead relying instead on kinetic energy to destroy their target with a direct hit.  The benefit is that the targeted missile with a conventional warhead will not explode when hit and neither will a missile equipped with a nuclear warhead.

How Did It End Up In South Korea?

In 2013, South Korean and American government officials were in talks to provide the THAAD system to South Korea to strengthen defensive measures against North Korean ballistic missiles. After initially leaving the plans to purchase the system by the Park Geun-hye led government, it purchased the THAAD system in 2016 and 2017 after heightened tensions with Kim’s North Korea.

After studying sites for the placement of THAAD units, the South Korean government and the US chose Seongju County in North Gyeongsang Province because of its elevation and because the region was out of range from North Korean rockets placed along the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Upon the announcement, the South Korean government faced backlash and a series of protests from the locals living in the region. They thought the radiation emitted from the system’s AN/TYP-2 radar would harm their health and crops.

Gimcheon Mayor Park Bo-saeng had initially tried to talk to high-level officials about the THAAD system’s deployment but to no avail. However, the protests were partially successful as THAAD was moved to the Lotte Skyhill Country Club golf course, 8 kilometers away from Gimcheon.

The same concerns arose when the THAAD system was set up at a defunct country club, where farmers and residents were concerned about the electromagnetic radiation emitting from the systems’ high-resolution, infrared radar that it needs to detect and track missiles from long distances. This is an essential component to the effectiveness of THAAD’s six mobile launchers and 48 interceptor missiles. To address the concern, both the US and South Korea had shown locals how these systems posed no threats to their health or crops, in part because the radar is mostly directed at the skies rather than the ground.

Eventually, in 2017, 2 THAAD launcher transporters arrived in South Korea along with its radar systems, interceptor launchers, communications, and other pertinent equipment. Later in the year, the South Korean Defense Ministry would announce that the THAAD system was now operational and could intercept missiles launched by North Korea—particularly the Hwasong-12 missiles that were tested just a few days ago.

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