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What it means to the region after U.S. bases in Asia strengthen missile defenses

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A growing arms race in Asia has put U.S. military bases there within range of missiles based in North Korea and China. The U.S. is responding by beefing up missile defenses.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from a South Korean village that this move has implications locally and across the entire region.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: We've just climbed a small mountain in Seongju County, South Korea. And from the top, we can see a golf course. And sitting on the fairway are several mobile missile launchers, with their tubes pointed north towards North Korea. The missiles are part of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system. The U.S. installed them here in 2017 to protect U.S. military bases here from North Korean missile attacks.

With me is activist Kim Young-jae. He says the batteries were installed over the objections of local residents.

KIM YOUNG-JAE: (Through interpreter) We activists and residents think that the THAAD deployment here is illegal, so we try to stay alert and notice any changes happening inside the base.

KUHN: After five years of operation, the place still looks a lot more like a golf course than a military base. In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin complained to Seoul that some U.S. and South Korean soldiers were living in a golf clubhouse, others in shipping containers.

Kim Young-jae says activists and residents have tried to blockade the base to prevent it from being upgraded.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Publicly, they say this is a temporary deployment, in order to deflect residents' opposition. But in fact, they've been taking every possible step to make it a permanent deployment.

KUHN: The prospect of upgrades to the THAAD base has residents nearby worried.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUHN: Protesters march down the main street of Soseong-ri, a small farming village of about 70 households near the base. The village is remote, and most of the residents are elderly.

In the village library, resident Park Soo Gyu says a dozen or so activists have faced prosecution after clashing with police.

PARK SOO GYU: (Through interpreter) This quiet village is now being ravaged. Some call it a jail without bars.

KUHN: The residents and activists aren't the only ones who want to see the THAAD batteries removed. China fears that the system's radar could be used to spy on it and defeat its missiles. After THAAD was installed, Beijing used undeclared economic sanctions to punish South Korea until Seoul made several promises. One was that it would not install any more THAAD batteries. Another was that the existing batteries in South Korea would not be integrated into the larger U.S. missile defense system. But that's exactly what the U.S. has in mind.

CLINT WORK: The upgrades are really focused on the more immediate threat, which is North Korea. And I think the upgrades will involve, first and foremost, integrating the systems with other existing U.S. assets - obviously, the PAC-3s.

KUHN: Clint Work is a fellow with the Stimson Center in Washington. This year, the U.S. began testing to link THAAD to its Patriot, or PAC-3, missile systems. He says that the idea is to give the U.S. and its bases multiple layers of defenses.

WORK: North Korea's own missile advancements clearly are intended to exploit gaps in the current coverage.

KUHN: In order to do that, the North has recently tested hypersonic missiles and missiles launched from submarines and trains. Work says that THAAD batteries here could also be integrated with other THAAD batteries in Japan and Guam and a central missile defense control center in Alaska. In future, he says, it's possible that THAAD could be repurposed to counter a threat from China.

WORK: At least as the U.S. currently states it - that the way that the radars are oriented really doesn't allow too much peering into Chinese territory. They could easily be shifted to do so, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were.

KUHN: Yoon Sukjoon, a retired South Korean Navy captain, argues that since THAAD is being integrated into U.S. missile defenses, Seoul is no longer constrained by its previous pledges to Beijing. And Washington doesn't need to beat around the bush about what THAAD is here for.

YOON SUKJOON: (Through interpreter) Under the framework of competition with China, the U.S. no longer needs to make the excuse that the system needs to be deployed on the peninsula solely for defense against North Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Korean).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Anti-THAAD protesters make it clear they don't want to be caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and its potential foes.

Resident Park Soo Gyu puts it this way.

PARK: (Through interpreter) In case of a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea or between the U.S. and China, this place will be one of the first targets of attack. This village could become the front line overnight.

KUHN: The fate of the third issue could depend in part on the outcome of South Korea's presidential elections next March, with conservative and liberal candidates staking out opposing views on the issue.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Soseong-ri, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 5, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, we incorrectly say the U.S. began testing to link THAAD and Patriot missile systems this year. The testing began in 2020.