SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. military moved parts of an anti-missile defense system to a deployment site in South Korea on Wednesday amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, triggering protests from villagers and China.
The top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, told the U.S. Congress the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would be operational “in coming days.”
The earlier-than-expected steps to deploy system were denounced both by China, and 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.
It said South Korea and the United States had been working to reached “early operational capability” and the battery was expected to be operational by the end of the year.
Harris, testifying before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, said THAAD “will be operational in the coming days.”
The United States began moving the first elements of the THAAD system to South Korea in March after North Korea tested four ballistic missiles.
The Pentagon says the system is critical to defend South Korea and U.S. forces, and that that is its sole purpose.
China complains that the system’s advanced radar can penetrate deep into its territory and undermine its security, while it will do little to deter the North.
“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.
Seoul has accused China of discriminating against South Korean companies in China in retaliation for the deployment.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and its support is seen as crucial to U.S.-led efforts to rein in Pyongyang.
Moon Jae-in, a liberal politician expected to win South Korea’s election, has called for a delay in THAAD 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.
More than 10 protesters were injured, some of them with fractures, in clashes with police, Kim Jong-kyung, a leader of villagers opposing the deployment, told Reuters.
Kim said about 200 protesters rallied overnight and they would keep up their opposition.
“There’s still time for THAAD to be actually up and running so we will fight until equipment is withdrawn from the site and ask South Korea’s new government to reconsider,” he told Reuters.
A police official in the nearby town of Seongju said police had withdrawn from the area and were not aware of any injuries.
Washington and Pyongyang have stepped up warnings to each other in recent weeks over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles in defiance of U.N. resolutions and concerns that Pyongyang may soon conduct a sixth nuclear bomb test.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting U.S. President Donald Trump. He has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile.
North Korea has vowed to strike the United States and its Asian allies at the first sign of any attack.
The United States is sending the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula, where it will join the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine that docked in South Korea on Tuesday. South Korea’s navy has said it will hold drills with the U.S. strike group.
Harris said the carrier was in the Philippine Sea, within two-hours striking distance of North Korea “if called upon to do that”.
Washington has said all options are on the table in dealing with North Korea, including military ones, but officials have stressed that the current focus is on stepped-up sanctions, which are expected to be discussed at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Chinese support for new sanctions is vital given that it is North Korea’s biggest trading partner.
North Korea’s foreign ministry denounced the planned meeting, saying the United States was “not morally entitled” to force member states to impose sanctions. It called the U.S., attempt to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons through military threats and sanctions “a wild dream” and like “sweeping the sea with a broom”.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday urged all sides to ease tensions between North and South Korea and work towards a peaceful solution in the region through negotiations.
“Security and stability is quite fragile and there is a great danger that a new conflict, or incidents could happen at any time,” he said.
U.S. officials say Washington sees no value in returning to international talks on North Korea until Pyongyang shows it is serious about denuclearization.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Phil Stewaert and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel and Clive McKeef