Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The South Korean government on Thursday postponed a formal environmental survey on the advanced US missile defense system deployed in a southern town amid a fierce protest by local residents and activists.
More than 900 residents in Seongju shaved their heads last year, like monks or death row inmates, to protest against the decision to deploy THAAD in the county.
The Korean Church has also expressed its firm opposition to the project that would have plunged South Korea in a new Cold War.
South Korea’s Defence and Environment ministries planned to conduct a joint study of electromagnetic radiation and noise from the THAAD system in Seongju, some 300 kilometres southeast of Seoul.
Two rocket launchers and a powerful X-band radar are already operational at the new US Forces Korea (USFK) base, formerly a private golf course.
A "small-scale" environmental impact assessment has been under way there since December under South Korean law. But residents in Seongju called on the government to reconsider the THAAD deployment in the area.
Locals claim that the administration of ousted President Park Geun-hye, who is now in prison waiting trial for corruption, pressed with the deployment without proper and transparent procedures.
It should be noted that in May, the South Korean military failed to inform President Moon Jae-in that the United States had already delivered four THAAD launchers (worth US$ 800 million each) to counter the North Korean missile threat.
For its part, South Korea through its Foreign Ministry urged North Korea to end its threats and reiterated its call on Pyongyang to accept the offer of talks aimed at reducing tensions in the region.
The tense tension has led South Korean President Moon Jae-in to accept the demands of the military to boost the country's defence systems and the request from the Defence and Environment ministries to halt the THAAD environmental survey.
"The North should make the right choice and come out to the road toward denuclearization,” said Cho June-hyuck, a spokesman for South Korean’s foreign ministry. “In particular, (we) urge it again to swiftly respond to our initiative for better inter-Korean relations so as to establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea offered to hold talks with the North to ease tensions along the Korean demarcation line, as well as allow reunions of families separated by the division of the Peninsula after the Korean War of 1950-53. Pyongyang rejected the offer, saying it lacked sincerity.
Kim Jong-un's regime also reacted to Resolution 2371, which entails a total ban on coal exports, considered one of the country’s main sources of funds to bankroll its weapons programme. As a result, Pyongyang threatened to attack the island of Guam in the Pacific, home to several US bases, in mid-August.
An unidentified spokesperson for the North's Korean People's Army (KPA) said Pyongyang was examining a plan to launch four Hwasong-12 rockets against US military bases on Guam.
US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis urged the North to stop any action that would "lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people."
In Seoul, South Korean officials have been cautious. One official at the Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae), seat of the executive office and official residence of the South Korean president, said that the North Korean threat may have been multipurposed but not to incite an actual conflict.
"I do not agree with the claim that the Korean Peninsula faces an imminent crisis," the official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.
"It is true the situation on the Korean Peninsula is becoming very serious due to North Korea's repeated provocations though many believe they are rather strategic provocations," the official explained. "However, I do not believe the situation has reached a state of crisis; I rather think we may turn this into an opportunity to overcome the serious security condition”.
After this was reported in the media, no denial has come from the Blue House. For the anonymous presidential source, Kim Jong-un threats are meant to undermine the US-South Korean alliance, and US policy in the peninsula.
Meanwhile, China has repeatedly called for North Korea and the US to negotiate directly.
“Prior American presidents have shared [Donald Trump’s] frustrations with North Korea, but none of them promised Armageddon if Pyongyang continued to issue the kinds of threats it has made on a monthly basis for decades,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, in an exchange with the South China Morning Post.
“China tries to present itself as the reasonable adult in a room of squabbling children,” Daly added. “Beijing will therefore continue to respond to heated rhetoric from Washington and Pyongyang by calling for calm and calm is indeed in short supply.”
“Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Americans should sleep well at night,” he added.
For the Washington Post, it is still unclear whether North Korea successfully tested its new nuclear weapon. In the past, it has claimed success, but often as mere propaganda.
It is not even clear how many nuclear weapons Kim Jong-un has. The report cited by the Washington Post mentions up to 60 (new and old), but other experts argue that the number could be lower, around 20 or 30 (by comparison the US has 6,800).
On the sidelines of the diplomatic crisis, North Korea released a Korean-Canadian Protestant clergyman that it was holding.
"Our government welcomes the release of pastor Lim Hyeon-soo, who had been detained in North Korea," said Cho June-hyuck, spokesman at the South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Rev Lim, who had travelled to North Korea in January 2015, was convicted on subversion charges, and sentenced to life with hard labour.
At present, three other Christian missionaries and three Americans are still detained in the North.