Park says shift in location of Thaad battery possible

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Park says shift in location of Thaad battery possible

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President Park Geun-hye meets with Saenuri lawmakers from Daegu and North Gyeongsang on Thursday at the Blue House to hear complaints about the government’s recent decision to deploy a U.S.-led missile defense system in Seongju, North Gyeongsang. Eleven lawmakers - 10 first-term lawmakers and Rep. Yi Wan-young, a two-term lawmaker who represents Goryeong, Seongju and Chilgok counties, attended the meeting. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The government will try to find a different site in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang to operate a controversial U.S.-led antimissile system, President Park Geun-hye said Thursday.

Park invited a group of lawmakers representing Daegu and North Gyeongsang to the Blue House and listened to complaints about the government’s recent decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in Seongju County.

Residents think it will make them a target of a North Korean attack and may also pose health hazards.

The government announced last month that the southeastern rural village of Seongju was selected based on a joint survey conducted by South Korea and the United States.

A Korean artillery base is located in Seongsan-ri in Seongju County and the government plans to relocate the unit and offer the site to the U.S. military to deploy the system. Because the system comes with powerful radar, residents are worrying about electromagnetic radiation. Seoul and Washington claim there is no risk.

“Instead of the Seongsan artillery base, I will consider placing the Thaad battery in another area inside Seongju County,” Park said in her meeting with the lawmakers. “If the military makes a recommendation of a new site inside Seongju based on concerns of the residents, we will conduct a thorough survey. And we will inform the Seongju residents in detail about the outcome.”

Eleven ruling Saenuri Party lawmakers from the region - 10 first-term lawmakers and Rep. Yi Wan-young, a second-term lawmaker representing Goryeong, Seongju and Chilgok counties of North Gyeongsang - attended the meeting. Park was accompanied by her top secretaries including Chief of Staff Lee Won-jong.

The talks lasted for nearly two hours. Although critics claimed the meeting was Park’s attempt to influence a ruling party chairmanship election scheduled for Tuesday, participants said she made no direct mention of it.

Shortly after Park’s remark about Thaad, the Ministry of National Defense issued a statement saying it will conduct an evaluation of an alternate site if the Seongju County government makes a recommendation.

The ministry abruptly reversed its position after Park’s comment. It flatly rejected a proposal to consider another site only 10 days ago.

Last month, residents and North Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kwan-yong proposed alternate sites on Mount Yeomsok and Mount Ggachi in the county, because they are less populated. Seongju County has a population of 45,000 people and Seongsan-ri has about 2,800 residents.

The Air Force’s Hawk missile base is located on top of a mountain in Seongsan-ri, about 1.5 kilometers (almost one mile) from Seongsan-eup, one of the most populous towns in the county with about 14,000 residents.

The ministry issued a statement on July 25 that it had surveyed alternate sites but found many inappropriate factors. “Therefore, the ministry’s position [on the Thaad site] remains unchanged,” it said at the time.

It remains to be seen if the site will actually be changed, as the selection was made based on months of simulations and surveys with the United States. Operational deployment of the battery is scheduled to be completed before the end of next year.

Rep. Yi, who represents Seongju, continued to protest the Thaad deployment in his district even after the meeting with the president. “I have told the president all about the strong protests in Seongju, because the Seongsan artillery base is located right near a village,” Yi said. “And Park replied that a survey will be conducted if Seongju County’s head requests an alternate site.”

Yi said Seongju residents do not want the deployment in their county at all. “They are even more agitated as the media reports about a new site,” he said. “There is no alternate site in Seongju,” Shin Jeong-geun, a 40-year-old resident of Seongsan-ri of Seongju, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It makes no sense. The government is now saying it will place the Thaad in another area because there are many people living in Seongju. Initially, they said [the artillery base] was the best place, and now they are changing the words. We cannot trust anything.”

Lee Jae-bok, co-leader of a protest group, said the residents want the government to recant its decision. “All the residents of the county want no Thaad in Seongju,” he said.

Jeong Yeong-gil, another leader of the protest group, said the residents will hold a big rally on Aug. 15 in Seongju. “Hundreds of the county people will shave their heads to protest,” he said. “We will hold more candlelight vigils.”

Opposition parties ridiculed Park’s comments and the defense ministry’s volte-face. “The government has repeatedly stressed that the Seongsan artillery base is the best site,” said Rep. Ki Dong-min of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea. “It must provide a convincing explanation if it will change that position.”

He said Park’s remarks were proof that the site selection was made hastily and poorly. “We cannot accept or understand this,” he said.

The People’s Party also criticized the president’s remarks. “The government ignored the people’s protests and selected the site based on the U.S. military’s request,” Rep Lee Yong-ho, spokesman of the party. “How does the Park administration plan to quiet the U.S. forces’ complaints if it wants to change the site now?”

Meanwhile, six lawmakers from the Minjoo Party of Korea said they will visit China next week to meet with security experts to study the Thaad deployment’s impact on Korea-China relations. Beijing has fiercely protested the deployment, claiming that it will severely infringe upon its strategic security in the region.

The visit comes at a sensitive time because China is intensifying its pressure on Korea over the decision. The six lawmakers will stay in China for three days and meet with experts and Korean residents in Beijing. A meeting with a senior Chinese communist party official was also planned.

While the liberal opposition People’s Party and Justice Party strongly protested the Park administration’s decision to accept the Thaad deployment, the Minjoo Party has not formally decided its position. And yet, some of its lawmakers are criticizing the decision. Eight Minjoo representatives visited Seongju on Wednesday to meet with residents. 

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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