South Koreans resist a U.S. "defense" plan

SooKyung Nam reports on widespread opposition in South Korea to a missile defense system that could increase the possibility of war and damage the environment.

Protesters sit in against plans for a new missile defense system in South KoreaProtesters sit in against plans for a new missile defense system in South Korea

PROTESTS HAVE been growing in South Korea over the government's plans, coordinated with the U.S., to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)--a sophisticated missile defense system--on the Korean peninsula.

In July, right after the THAAD announcement, about 900 South Koreans shaved their heads, a powerful way of expressing their protest. By early August, 100,000 people signed a petition demanding reversal of the decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea.

The proposed site of the THAAD battery is Seongju, about 135 miles southeast of the country's capital city Seoul. Now this small rural town in Gyungsang Province has become the center of peace and antiwar protest in South Korea. Angry protesters have been holding rallies every day for almost three months.

THAAD is a powerful missile and radar system that both South Korea and U.S. claim is necessary to counter North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and missiles, and would be used for defensive purposes. But people in Seongju are worried that Seongju will become a high-priority military target, and that the deployment of THAAD will diminish the chances for peace between North and South Korea.

Residents are also concerned that the THAAD battery's powerful signals would pose a big threat to their health and ruin their agricultural economy--Seongju County provides about 60 percent of all melons sold in South Korea. Many environmentalists and peace activists have participated in the ongoing protests and supported local farmers and residents.

The United States has sought to deploy the THAAD system on the Korean peninsular for years. "Given the accelerating pace of North Korea's missile tests, we intend to deploy on an accelerated basis--I would say, as soon as possible" said Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel to the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. Russel added that the deployment would be for "defensive" reasons only.

The U.S. faces a strong opposition from China, which asserts that it is the system's true target rather than North Korea--and Russia, which argues that a THAAD system in the region would compromise its security and worsen military tensions in the region.

China and Russia are not the only ones protesting. So far the most determined protesters against THAAD deployment in South Korea are the ordinary people in South Korea, especially those living in Seongju. Local farmers and residents along with peace activists and environmental activists are holding daily protests in Seongju against the deployment of U.S. weapons.

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GYUNGSANG PROVINCE, where Sungju county is located, has been a traditional stronghold for the Korea's military dictatorship and its political party since the 1960s. Park Geun-hye, the current president of South Korea and daughter of the former military dictator, has received almost unchallenged support from the region, as have her cronies.

However, that mood has been changing as the fight has become stronger and more militant. Chants of "Down with Park Geun-hye!" express the anger among local farmers and residents towards the government.

"I have always voted for the ruling party without question in my whole life," said one old farmer during a recent rally in Seongju. "Now I don't think I would do that again. They betrayed us. They are not working for us."

"THAAD should not be deployed at all," said another. "Not just in Seongju, but anywhere in South Korea."

The struggle in Seongju is drawing international solidarity in the region. In early October, Japanese peace activists and human rights lawyers from Hiroshima and Okinawa visited Seongju and participated in the regular rally held every day.

One peace activist from Okinawa shared the story of local residents' long struggle against U.S. military bases on his island:

Peace can be achieved only by peaceful means. Military actions will only destroy peace. That is the lesson we have learned in Okinawa. The peace in the region will not be determined by Obama or Park. We will decide it on our own terms.

In the U.S., the Green Party's Jill Stein is the only presidential candidate who has expressed any support for the South Korean protesters.

Stein sent the protesters a solidarity statement in September that said, "The last thing our world needs is a new nuclear arms race. We support the Korean Greens' call to stop THADD and redirect the funds to education, medicine and the fight against climate change." Stein urged the cancellation of THAAD because it "will cause tensions in northeast Asia, increase the arms race, and eventually harm efforts towards global peace.

Stein supported South Korean's fight against the U.S. military expansion, stating that "[d]eploying THAAD should not be allowed in any location in Korea including Seongju."

Another big rally is scheduled for October 11 in Seoul. After the rally, protesters are planning to march to the U.S. Embassy to demand cancellation of the depoloyment decision.