US military authorities said yesterday they had deployed new batteries of ground-to-air Patriot missiles in the southwestern city of Gwangju, a move that has triggered strong protests from activists there.
The deployment of two upgraded Patriot missile batteries in Gwangju, 187km southwest of Seoul, is part of a global redeployment program of US forces.
The 8th US Army had since late April been moving its 35th Air Defense Brigade from Fort Bliss, Texas and its two upgraded Patriot missile batteries to South Korea.
"The deployment of Patriot PAC-3 Air Defense Artillery Brigade was completed last week with the final load of equipment into Gwangju Air Base," the US Forces in Korea said in a statement.
The new missile brigade will be headquartered in the US air base at Osan, 35km south of Seoul, and its two missile batteries will be based in Gwangju.
The US forces will also retain their six existing Patriot missile batteries -- PAC-1 or PAC-2 batteries -- in South Korea under the command of the new brigade, US command officials said.
The deployment of new missiles has met angry protests from activists in Gwangju, formerly spelled Kwangju, and known for anti-US sentiment.
Activists and students in Gwangju have launched a campaign with a target to collect signatures from 100,000 people opposed to the missile deployment and have been holding rallies and street marches against the move.
The US Forces in Korea said in the statement the air defense brigade and Eighth US Army leadership "appreciate the cooperation of the Gwangju citizens" for the deployment.
"We also understand the need to be a good neighbor within the community and will work closely with the people of Gwangju to foster good communication, cultural awareness and mutual understanding," it said.
The deployment is part of Washington's force improvement program aimed to compensate for its plan to redeploy its forces in South Korea, under which one third of its 37,500 troops in the country will be pulled out in phases until September 2008.
The number of US troops to be withdrawn includes 3,600 already transferred to Iraq this year. The troops in Iraq will not return to South Korea.
The deployment of new missiles is part of an US$11 billion spending program aimed at compensating for the reduction in the number of troops, including high-speed vessels, attack helicopters and armored vehicles.
North Korea has angrily protested the missile deployment, claiming it is part of US preparations to launch a pre-emptive attack on the communist state.