SEOUL – People living near a South Korean golf course on Tuesday sued to stop it hosting a controversial US missile system (THAAD) loathed by Beijing, lawyers said, after Chinese media issued a veiled threat of a consumer boycott over the plan.
A subsidiary of retail giant Lotte Group, South Korea’s fifth-biggest company, signed an agreement Tuesday with the defence ministry to provide the course in the southeast of the country, authorities said, despite coming under growing pressure from crucial market China over the proposal.
The plan by Washington and Seoul to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in response to threats from nuclear-armed North Korea has angered Beijing, which fears it will undermine its own ballistic capabilities.
Chinese authorities have forced Lotte to suspend a $2.6 billion theme park construction project, and other South Korean businesses have faced tougher regulatory hurdles from Beijing.
But the Lotte board on Monday approved the swap of a company-owned golf course in Seongju county, in southeastern South Korea, for a parcel of military-owned ground near Seoul.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said the decision “could turn into a nightmare for Lotte”.
“Exasperated Chinese people may boycott Lotte products and services in their country,” it added.
The plan has also stirred protest closer to home, with riled locals launching a lawsuit with the Seoul administrative court against South Korea’s defence ministry.
“This is only the beginning of our legal battles to stop this project,” lawyer Kim Yu-Jeong told journalists outside the defence ministry, where some 40 activists and residents mounted a demonstration.
Kim Chung-Hwan, the protest leader in Seongju county, told AFP by phone that hundreds of soldiers and riot police had been deployed at the nearby golf course to guard entrances.
Yonhap news agency said the military planned to use helicopters to bring in barbed wire fencing to close off the site after weeks of daily protests. It quoted an unidentified defence ministry official as saying that the THAAD system will be in place as early as in May or June.
The lawsuit from residents of Seongju county and neighbouring Gimcheon accuses the defence ministry of bypassing legally-required procedures, including prior agreement from local people and an environmental impact assessment.
Under the agreement, Lotte will provide 1,480,000 square metres of land in Seongju — with an estimated value of 8.9 billion won ($7.9 million) — for 67,000 square metres on the outskirts of the capital.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday reiterated its strong opposition to the planned installation, warning of “consequences” for Seoul and Washington.
Food- and retail-focussed Lotte has reportedly invested some 10 trillion won ($8.8 billion) in China and some 80 percent of sales at its duty free shops are to Chinese customers.
Last year the impoverished but nuclear-armed North staged two atomic tests and a number of missile launches.
The most recent missile test on February 12 — the first since US President Donald Trump took office — showed some signs of progress in its missile capabilities, according to the South Korean military.