By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – The U.S. military started moving parts of an anti-missile defense system to a deployment site in South Korea on Wednesday, triggering protests from villagers and criticism from China, amid tension over North Korea’s weapons development.
The earlier-than-expected steps to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was also denounced by the frontrunner in South Korea’s presidential election on May 9.
South Korea’s defense ministry said elements of THAAD were moved to the deployment site, on what had been a golf course, about 250 km (155 miles) south of the capital, Seoul.
“South Korea and the United States have been working to secure an early operational capability of the THAAD system in response to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threat,” the ministry said in a statement.
The battery was expected to be operational by the end of the year, it said.
The United States and South Korea agreed last year to deploy the THAAD to counter the threat of missile launches by North Korea. They say it is solely aimed at defending against North Korea.
But China says the system’s advanced radar can penetrate deep into its territory and undermine its security, while it will do little to deter the North, and is adamant in its opposition.
“China strongly urges the United States and South Korea to stop actions that worsen regional tensions and harm China’s strategic security interests and cancel the deployment of the THAAD system and withdraw the equipment,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a briefing.
“China will resolutely take necessary steps to defend its interests,” Geng said, without elaborating.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and is seen as crucial to U.S.-led efforts to rein in its bellicose, isolated neighbor.
The United States began moving the first elements of the system to South Korea in March after the North tested four ballistic missiles.
South Korea has accused China of discriminating against some South Korean companies operating in China because of the deployment.
The liberal politician expected to win South Korea’s election, Moon Jae-in, has called for a delay in the deployment, saying the new administration should make a decision after gathering public opinion and more talks with Washington.
A spokesman for Moon said moving the parts to the site “ignored public opinion and due process” and demanded it be suspended.
Television footage showed military trailers carrying equipment, including what appeared to be launch canisters, to the battery site.
Protesters shouted and hurled water bottles at the vehicles over lines of police holding them back.
The Pentagon said the system was critical to defend South Korea and its allies against North Korean missiles and deployment would be completed “as soon as feasible”.
‘WE WILL FIGHT’
More than 10 protesters were injured, some of them with fractures, in clashes with police, Kim Jong-kyung, a leader of villagers opposing the…