U.S. Army trucks brought four more THAAD anti-missile launchers onto a former golf course in South Korea on Thursday, following clashes between police and protesters trying to block the road.
Two of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system launchers were already in place, but the remaining four in the battery had been put on hold pending an environmental study.
On Wednesday, the South Korean Defense Ministry gave approval to the placement of six launchers in response to North Korea’s underground detonation last week of a nuclear weapon that may have been a hydrogen bomb.
“After consultations with Washington, the additional THAAD launchers will be installed on a temporary basis together with other construction equipment and materials,” the Defense Ministry said.
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For months, the placement of the THAAD system in Seongju, about 186 miles south of Seoul, has been the target of protests by local residents who fear that the presence of the launchers will make the area a prime target in the event of war.
South Korean news outlets reported that several dozen protesters suffered minor injuries in clashes with police trying to clear an access road.
The installation of the full THAAD battery is part of a regional military buildup authorized by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and approved by President Donald Trump in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and development of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Trump tweeted on Tuesday that he would allow South Korea and Japan to buy a “substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment.” He did not specify the types of systems under consideration.
Both South Korea and Japan have Patriot air defense systems, and Japan reportedly has expressed interest in installing a THAAD system.
In its 2018 defense budget proposals, Japan also seeks funding for missile defense upgrades, to include Standard Missile-3 Block 2A and PAC-3 MSE hit-to-kill interceptors as well as improvements to air and missile defense radars.
In addition, Japan also wants the Aegis Ashore air defense system — the land-based version of the system already in use on U.S., Japanese and South Korean warships.
Trump has given initial approval to South Korea’s request to lift the limits on the size of its missile warheads to double their explosive force.
Under a 2012 agreement, South Korea’s missiles were restricted to a range of about 500 miles and warheads of about 1,000 pounds. The new arrangement would allow warheads of about 2,000 pounds.
On Wednesday, Mattis phoned his South Korean and Japanese counterparts to assure them of the U.S.’s continuing “ironclad” commitment to their defense.
Also on Wednesday, Mattis — joined by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats — put forward the administration’s strategy for dealing with North Korea in closed briefings for House and Senate members.
The two-part strategy looks to building missile defenses in the U.S. and the region while eventually pursuing a negotiated settlement to denuclearize the peninsula, according to members of Congress who attended the briefings.
“There was really no bluster whatsoever” in the briefings. “It’s clear the administration would like some kind of negotiating deal,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Politico.
Since he came to office in January, Trump has been calling on China to pressure North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un to cease his provocations and come to the bargaining table.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested Thursday that Beijing is willing to go along with additional United Nations sanctions against North Korea — which Russia opposes — in combination with efforts to open a dialogue with the North.
“Given the new developments on the Korean peninsula, China agrees that the U.N. Security Council should make a further response and take necessary measures,” Wang told reporters at an economic forum in Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast.
“Any new actions taken by the international community against the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] should serve the purpose of curbing the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs, while at the same time be conducive to restarting dialogue and consultation,” Wang said.