The US military started moving parts of the controversial THAAD anti-missile defense system to a site in South Korea on Wednesday amid high tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear program.
Television footage showed military trailers carrying what appeared to be launch canisters being driven into the planned THAAD battery site, about 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Seoul.
Images showed local protesters hurling water bottles at the vehicles and police trying to block them. The spokesman for the front runner in South Korea’s May 9 presidential election Moon Jae-in also criticised the move to start assembling THAAD.
Moon’s spokesman, Park Kwang-on, said in a statement that it was “very inappropriate” as it strips the next government of the right to make the policy decision on the missile defence system.
South Korea’s defense ministry said parts of the missile system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, were moved to the site in Seongju county in the south.
“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,” South Korea’s defense ministry said in a statement.
Washington and Pyongyang have been ratcheting up pressure on each other in recent weeks, with the United States sending a aircraft carrier group and nuclear submarine to the region and North Korea attempting more missile launches in defiance of UN sanctions.
North Korea on Wednesday said leader Kim Jong Un had supervised the country’s “largest-ever” live-fire drill involving more than 300 large-caliber, self-propelled artillery to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of its military.
The drill came instead of a nuclear test or the launch of a long-range missile as feared amid pressure from the United States and China, its sole major ally.
The United States and South Korea agreed to deploy the THAAD, in response to the threat of missile launches by North Korea. However the move has angered China, which says the system will do little to deter the North while destabilizing regional security.
China is also concerned the system’s powerful radar can penetrate its own territory and undermine security.
A US submarine designed to carry 150 Tomahawk cruise missiles entered a South Korean port on Tuesday as the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group steamed towards the Peninsular in a show of force to deter the North from a sixth nuclear test and more missile launches.
South Korea’s navy has said it plans to hold a joint drill with the U.S. strike group late this month.
The North’s KCNA news agency said Kim Jong Un supervised the live-fire drill by its artillery units, navy and air force and involving submarines firing torpedos.
“The brave artillerymen mercilessly and satisfactorily hit the targets and the gunshots were very correct, he said, adding that they showed well the volley of gunfire of our a-match-for-a-hundred artillery force giving merciless punishment to the hostile forces,” KCNA said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has said North Korea is a global threat and “a problem that we have to finally solve” while calling on the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said he and fellow Republican John McCain had dinner with Trump on Monday and discussed North Korea. Graham told Fox News he was impressed by Trump’s resolve.
“He’s not going to let this nut-job in North Korea develop a missile with a nuclear weapon on top to hit America,” Graham said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.