SEOUL • The United States military has started installing a missile defence system in South Korea, sparking protests from local residents and complaints from China as tensions mount over North Korea's nuclear programme.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or Thaad, should be operational by the year end, said South Korea's Defence Ministry.
But Admiral Harry Harris, the top US commander in the Asia-Pacific, told the US Congress in Washington yesterday that the system should be operational in the coming days.
Television footage showed trucks hauling equipment, including radars and mobile launchers, into a site in the south-eastern region of Seongju, North Gyeongsang province, as police in riot gear watched protesters lining the streets.
American forces began moving the components into a former golf course around midnight yesterday to avoid attracting the attention of local citizens, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
South Korean police mobilised 8,000 officers to control any possible conflict with villagers, who are concerned that the system's powerful radars may affect their health.
More than 10 protesters were injured during clashes with police, said Mr Kim Jong Kyung, co-head of a group of villagers protesting against the Thaad deployment. He said about 200 protesters, mostly residents in two towns near the battery site, rallied overnight and would remain near the location.
The missile defence system has become a campaign issue ahead of South Korea's May 9 presidential election, with front runner Moon Jae In denouncing its expedited deployment while closest rival Ahn Cheol Soo said it must take place.
The deployment has also angered China, which is worried that the system could be used to spy on its own facilities.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular press briefing in Beijing yesterday that the country had expressed "serious and justified concerns" to the US and South Korea over the deployment. He said China would take measures against the move, which would "disrupt the regional strategic balance and further aggravate tensions on the peninsula".
The deployment comes amid rising anxiety. North Korea has accelerated ballistic missile tests to gain the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to locations as far as the US, while President Donald Trump's administration asserts that it could take military action against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime.
The Pentagon said recent missile launches by Pyongyang highlight the need to deploy Thaad to protect South Koreans and alliance forces.
On Tuesday, North Korea held its "largest ever" artillery firing drill to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of its military, its official Korean Central News Agency said.
Thaad, made by Lockheed Martin, is designed to destroy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles at high altitudes in their "terminal" phase, as they descend.
Mr Moon, of the left-leaning Democratic Party of Korea, said through a spokesman that Thaad's deployment should be decided under the new government only after "sufficient discussions and public agreement and reviewing our interest and alliance with the US".
A spokesman for Mr Ahn, of the centrist People's Party, said the installation should take place after "careful discussions" with residents.
Meanwhile, Japan and the US have started joint drills involving Japanese destroyers and the USS Carl Vinson in the waters between Japan and the Korean peninsula.
The Yomiuri Shimbun said it is extremely rare for Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force and a US aircraft carrier to jointly conduct exercises in the Sea of Japan or East Sea.
BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, XINHUA
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