SOSEONG-RI, South Korea – 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 skyscrapers of Gumi town. Right in front of you is an old golf course, with a former clubhouse, shipping containers on the grass, and six mobile missile launchers with their tubes pointed 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.
The base is a symptom of a growing arms race in Asia. The system aims to defend against potential North Korean missiles, which have only been able to reach any part of the Korean Peninsula in recent years.
North Korea claims to have successfully tested its second hypersonic missile on Wednesday, intended to defeat missile defense systems including THAAD.
But opponents of the defense system argue that it was installed without a democratic process and in disregard of their views on the issue.
“We activists and residents believe that the deployment of THAAD here is illegal,” activist Kim Young-jae said. “So we try to stay vigilant and notice any changes that are happening inside the base.”
In particular, they are looking for signs that the missile battery and living quarters of US and South Korean troops are being upgraded.
After five years of operation, the place still looks much more like a golf course than a military base.
During a visit in March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with South Korean defense officials about how the countries’ soldiers lived in a golf club, with others in containers from shipping, according to South Korean news reports.
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.
âPublicly, they say this is a temporary deployment, in order to deflect opposition from residents,â he said. “But in fact, they’ve taken all possible steps to make it a permanent deployment.”
THAAD is a symbol of South Korea’s strategic location
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 defense system, fearing that it could be used to defeat Chinese missiles or that its radar could spy on China.
For many South Koreans, THAAD brings to mind an uplifting account of the economic punishment that China inflicted on his country, when Seoul allowed the United States to deploy THAAD over Beijing’s objections.
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.
âThis quiet village is now devastated,â says Park Soo Gyu, a resident. “Some call it a prison without bars.”
He notes that a dozen activists have been prosecuted after clashes with the police.
Residents also fear being caught in the crossfire between the United States and its potential enemies.
âIn the event of a conflict between the United States and North Korea, or between the United States and China, this location will be one of the first targets of attack,â he said. “This village could become the front line overnight.”
Protesters often gather near the base to chant slogans and demand the removal of the missile battery. A poster hanging near the entrance criticizes the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, proclaiming: “We condemn the Moon Jae-in government for serving the containment of China by the United States.”
Is Seoul bound by its THAAD commitments to Beijing?
After the launchers were deployed to the golf course in 2017, Beijing used undeclared economic sanctions to punish South Korea, until Seoul did. several promises. One was that he would no longer be installing THAAD batteries. Another was that the existing batteries in South Korea would not be integrated into the larger US missile defense system.
But that’s exactly what the Pentagon has in mind. Its Missile Defense Agency has started test in 2020 to link THAAD to its Patriot missile systems, or PAC-3.
“I think that changes will go first and foremost through the integration of [THAAD] systems with other existing US assets, obviously PAC-3s, âsays Clint Work, a member of the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, DC
South Korea’s defense ministry said personnel at the THAAD base should be provided with adequate housing. As for the possible upgrade of the THAAD, the ministry referred to the United States on the matter.
“[The U.S.] released a long term plan [for upgrading THAAD], but it will take time to implement it, “said a spokesperson for the ministry. told reporters in 2020. âWe know that Seongju’s system needs to be updated, but we can’t know in detail what the next step is. “
Work thinks the idea is to give the United States and its bases several layers of defense. “North Korea’s own missile advances are clearly aimed at exploiting gaps in current coverage,” he said.
Depending on the work, the THAAD system here could also be integrated with other THAAD batteries in Japan and Guam, and a central missile defense control center in Alaska.
Could the system be redirected to China?
In the future, according to the analyst, there is a possibility that THAAD will be reused to counter a Chinese threat.
“At least as the United States is currently saying, the way the radar is oriented really doesn’t allow too much scrutiny of Chinese territory,” notes Work. But, “they could easily be moved to do it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.”
Yoon Sukjoon, a retired Korean naval captain, argues that since THAAD became part of US missile defenses, Seoul is no longer constrained by its previous commitments to Beijing, and Washington does not need to beat around the bush on why THAAD is there.
âIn competing with China, the United States no longer needs to excuse that the system must be deployed on the peninsula only to defend against North Korea,â Yoon told NPR.
He also argues that THAAD could mean the end of Seoul’s strategic ambiguity over its relationship with Beijing and Washington.
âTHAAD is part of the United States’ anti-China global united front,â Yoon said. “It has become a strategic tool to contain China from one of the closest countries and one of the most trusted allies of the United States.”
This is not the language of the administration of outgoing President Moon, which has avoided using any rhetoric in the face of Beijing.
The future of South Korea’s approach to the THAAD issue may depend on the outcome of its presidential elections in March, with conservative and liberal candidates expressing opposing views on the subject.
NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report.