South Korea on Friday morning announced the new site of a US-built missile defence system that China is strongly opposed to, as tensions between Seoul and Beijing run high.
Lotte Skyhill Country Club, 18km north of the Seongju County centre in the nation’s southeast, will host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, by next year, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
The initial plan was to set up the system at the Seongsan anti-aircraft missile base in Seongju, 296km southeast of Seoul. But the move was met with strong protests by residents over potential health risks that the THAAD radar system posed.
The new site sits 680 metres above sea level – about 300m higher than the initial base – and is also farther away from residential areas, which could allay health concerns, Yonhap reported.
But the new location could also pose problems to nearby Gimcheon town, as the radar would be pointing toward the county.
Gimcheon residents had already threatened “a full-scale protest” if its golf course were selected as the new site, according to Yonhap.
The South Korean government said it would hold a briefing to explain the decision in the afternoon as planned.
Buying over the golf course, owned by business conglomerate Lotte, will cost more than US$90 million and will require approval from the South Korean parliament.
The warm ties between China and South Korea under President Xi Jinping and South Korean leader Park Geun-hye have cooled considerably since July, after Seoul announced plans to deploy the THAAD system.
Seoul has insisted that the defence system is purely to protect itself from North Korea’s missile threats, but Beijing sees it as a danger to its national interests, allowing a US-backed anti-missile system in the region.
Adding to the already tense ties, three Chinese fishermen were killed on Thursday after South Korean coastguards threw flares and stun grenades as they boarded their boat, Yonhap reported.
The 102-tonne Chinese vessel “S” was sailing in South Korean waters about 70km southwest of Hong Island near the southwestern city of Mokpo at 9.45am when coastguard officials ordered it to stop, the report said.
Fourteen coastguard officers boarded the boat to carry out an inspection, but the Chinese crew locked the steering house and engine room.
The officers then threw three flares and sound bombs as they broke the windows of the steering house, Yonhap reported.
Three of the fishermen were found lying unconscious inside the engine room at about noon when the officers broke into the room.
Chinese consular officials have visited the coastguard office in Mokpo to demand a thorough investigation.
Wang Sheng, professor of international politics at Jilin University, said the incident would further complicate relations between Beijing and Seoul at such a sensitive time.
“Fishing disputes are a perennial problem between China and South Korea and it remains unknown if it was an intentional act to provoke trouble or just an accident,” Wang said.
“But given present tensions between the two nations, such incidents should have been avoided to reduce negative impact.”
In South Korea, concern has been growing that China will embark on large-scale retaliation against Seoul if it insists on deploying the THAAD system.
Chinese defence ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said China would consider taking “necessary measures to safeguard national strategic security and regional strategic balance”.
“What needs to be emphasised is that, Chinese do what they say,” Yang told reporters at a monthly press conference on Thursday.
Jilin University professor Wang said Yang’s message was “clear that Beijing has been considering ways of sanctions in culture, politics and military in the past three months”.
“Seoul may not understand Beijing on the issue that it would be a great potential danger to China if we allow a US-built missile defence system so close to China,” Wang said.
“Beijing is waiting for Seoul to change its mind because of the close relations in the past, but when expectations are high, the disappointment is higher.”
Li Kaisheng, from the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, agreed that the announcement of the new site for THAAD would further worsen bilateral relations, but said Bejing was unlikely to take tough sanctions against Seoul.
“In the context of the fifth nuclear test by North Korea, the geopolitical focus is now shifting to the Korean Peninsula,” Li said. “So it is unlikely for China to take too-tough action in response, for example, to retaliate through economic measures.”