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South Korean police fan out as residents protest equipment being moved to the site of an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the southeastern region of Seongju, Thursday, April 12, 2018.
South Korean police fan out as residents protest equipment being moved to the site of an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the southeastern region of Seongju, Thursday, April 12, 2018. (Courtesy of Mo Inkyu)

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s military cited the need to improve living conditions for soldiers manning the base housing a controversial U.S. missile defense battery as new protests erupted Thursday near the site in a remote southeastern area.

Police scuffled with activists and residents trying to block trucks from carrying construction material and other equipment to the former golf course that’s now home to the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system known as THAAD in Seongju, about 190 miles south of Seoul.

The defense ministry postponed the effort until more talks could be held with the protesters but said the equipment was needed to fix leaky roofs and sewage treatment facilities.

“The living conditions of the soldiers currently there are very poor,” spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said at a press briefing.

She said other equipment on the base needed to be replaced because of maintenance difficulties.

The 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment assumed the THAAD mission in October after it was realigned with the 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade in South Korea.

U.S. Forces Korea said contractors have conducted site surveys for basic maintenance and routine repairs.

“No construction is being done to enhance THAAD operations,” spokesman Col. Chad Carroll said in an email. "Rather these projects are designed to improve quality of life for our (South Korean) and U.S. soldiers.”

The effort to station a THAAD in the melon-farming area has faced several hurdles since it began in 2016, with Seoul and Washington saying the system was needed to face the growing threat from North Korea.

Villagers in the area said they fear adverse health and economic effects from the system, which includes six truck-mounted launchers and a powerful radar. Peace activists also object to its presence, saying it makes the area a target by threatening the North.

“The Seongju people want no THAAD there at the base,” Park Cheolju, a protest leader, said in a telephone interview. “Today’s demonstration shows that lots of people who want peace fought hard to keep it.”

Park said locals understood the need for the roof and sewage system repairs but suspected authorities were trying to sneak in materials to expand military facilities.

The sides agreed to a temporary compromise on Thursday allowing trailers to enter the base to remove forklifts and other heavy equipment that had been used for the initial construction work last year.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel

chang.kyong@stripes.com

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