(ATTN: UPDATES with details on THAAD in last 8 paras)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL/SEONGJU, South Korea, April 26 (Yonhap) -- U.S. troops in South Korea on Wednesday began installing the equipment for an advanced missile defense system at a site in a southeastern region of the country, facing fierce protests from local residents.
The Pentagon announced that it plans to complete the process as early as possible in cooperation with South Korea's military.
The overnight, unannounced operation came just six days after U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) secured the land in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, from the South Korean government. A joint environmental survey required under the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is not done yet, according to officials.
The allies signed a deal last year to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the peninsula to help intercept North Korea's ballistic missiles.
Six trailers reportedly carrying the high-profile X-band radar of the THAAD system, mobile launchers and other elements were seen entering the civilian-restricted zone starting around midnight.
"We are working with the ROK (South Korea) to complete the deployment of THAAD, a defensive weapons system, to the ROK as soon as feasible," the Pentagon said in response to Yonhap News Agency's query.
Deploying THAAD is a critical measure to defend South Korean people and alliance forces against North Korean missile threats, as highlighted by the recent ballistic missile launches by North Korea, it added.
"North Korea's unlawful weapons programs represent a clear, grave threat to U.S. national security," it said. "North Korea openly states that its ballistic missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons to strike cities in the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan."
South Korea's Ministry of National Defense also confirmed the start of full-scale deployment, with the test operation of the new system expected to start early next month.
"The measure this time is meant to secure early operational capability by positioning some available parts first at the site," the ministry said.
The two sides will proceed with the environmental assessment and construction of relevant facilities as scheduled, it added.
The allies plan to put the THAAD unit into full operation by the end of this year, according to the ministry.
Hundreds residents in the town clashed with police as they protested the transportation of the THAAD equipment.
They waved pickets reading "No THAAD, No War" and "Hey, U.S.! Are you friends or occupying troops?"
"Police let THAAD equipment pass through (protesters) by repressing them," Kang Hyun-wook, a religious figure staging a street rally, said. "The THAAD deployment is illegal and should be nullified."
People in Seongju, a traditionally tranquil town known for melon farming, are concerned that the area will become a prime target for the North's rocket or missile attacks.
The THAAD issue is not just about military strategy; the public is split over whether it should be deployed at all, especially ahead of the May 9 presidential elections.
Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party, an apparent front-runner in the presidential race, maintains that the controversial decision by the government of the ousted president Park Geun-hye should be reviewed by the next administration.
There is speculation that the U.S. is speeding up the THAAD deployment in order to make it irreversible.
It has also taken a toll on Seoul's ties with Beijing.
China, South Korea's neighbor and top trading partner, opposes the deployment of the THAAD system on the peninsula.
Designed to shoot down missiles at a high altitude from North Korea or elsewhere, a THAAD battery is made up of three to six truck-mounted launchers carrying some 50 interceptor missiles, and a fire control and communications unit, which are linked to the very long-range AN/TPY-2 radar system known as the world's most advanced mobile radar.
The U.S. said it has succeeded in all 11 THAAD system tests since 2005, the highest-hit rate among all existing hit-to-kill missile interceptors.
South Korea and the U.S. have already deployed Patriot missiles against the nuclear-armed North reportedly possessing more than 1,000 ballistic missiles with various ranges. The North has also been trying to develop submarine-launched missiles.
South Korea's defense ministry said the THAAD deployment here does not require the National Assembly's approval since it's just a bilateral agreement, not a treaty.
It dismissed Beijing's claim that the planned operation of a THAAD battery on the peninsula will hurt its national security. Chinese officials are especially concerned about the so-called X-band radar, arguing its maximum detection range exceeds 2,000 kilometers.
"The effective detection capability of the Terminal Mode radar of the THAAD system will be confined to the Korean Peninsula," it stressed.
Defense sources also said the radar will be situated on the ground some 680 meters above sea level, which would reduce the possibility of harm to humans from its electromagnetic waves.
"We understand public suspicions that the speedy deployment of the THAAD system may be related to the domestic political schedule. But it's more about the urgency of coping with mounting nuclear and missile threats from North Korea," a source said.
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