People protest against the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system in front of the Lotte Headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 27, 2017. Lotte Group, South Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate, decided Monday to offer its golf course to be used as a site for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). (Xinhua/Lee Sang-ho)
South Korea's Defense Ministry on Tuesday signed a land swap deal with Lotte Group for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) despite strong oppositions at home and abroad.
Lotte, the country's fifth-largest family-controlled conglomerate, is suspected of having agreed to offer its land for the THAAD deployment in exchange for the rejection of the attempt to detain its chairman and the restoration of its lost license to operate downtown duty free shops.
A Defense Ministry official told Xinhua that the contract to exchange military land for the Lotte-owned golf course was formally signed earlier in the day.
Lotte International, a Lotte unit possessing the golf course where the U.S. missile shield is set to be sited, held a board of directors meeting Monday to approve the contract.
Seoul and Washington abruptly announced the decision in July last year to deploy one THAAD battery by the end of this year. The THAAD site was altered in September to the golf course in Seongju county, North Gyeongsang province.
Just a day before the site change announcement, the arrest warrant for Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin was rejected by a Seoul court. At the time, Shin was accused of embezzlement and breach of trust worth millions of U.S. dollars.
Lotte also regained its duty free shop license in December despite its alleged involvement in a corruption scandal that led to President Park Geun-hye's impeachment.
The retail giant is suspected of donating millions of dollars to nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, Park's longtime confidante who is at the center of the scandal.
In addition to the donations, Lotte may have agreed to the land swap contract with the Defense Ministry in return for the rejected attempt to arrest Shin and the restored license to run downtown duty free stores.
Hong Ik-pyo, a lawmaker of the biggest opposition Minjoo Party, told a party meeting that Lotte's decision equals to breach of trust as the land swap contract was approved despite clear disadvantages, which Lotte is expected to suffer from with the approval.
Lotte depends on Chinese consumers and tourists to South Korea for much of its revenue in duty free shops and other retail services. Exasperated Chinese people may boycott Lotte products and services.
The lawmaker said Lotte's land offer for THAAD was aimed to enable Chairman Shin to avoid legal punishments for his wrongdoings, stressing the need for the final deployment decision to be relayed to the next government.
The golf course evaluated at about 89 billion won (78.6 million U.S. dollars) will be swapped for a military land in Gyeonggi province near the capital Seoul, according to the Defense Ministry's press release.
Negotiations on the land provision will be launched as the first step between the military authorities of the United States and South Korea. It will be followed by a basic designing of the base, an evaluation of environmental effects and construction.
To save time, multiple procedures are expected to be carried out simultaneously.
An unidentified Defense Ministry official told a regular briefing that various efforts will be made to move up the deployment date.
Local media speculations say the U.S. missile defense system is forecast to be installed in southeast South Korea as early as in June.
Push for the THAAD deployment was made amid strong objections from residents in the Seongju county and the Gimcheon city, which faces the site of the super microwave-emitting anti-missile system.
Tens of residents gathered in front of the Defense Ministry's headquarters in Seoul, holding a press conference to say that they will file a lawsuit with a Seoul administrative court against Defense Minister Han Min-koo.
Minister Han, the residents said, failed to follow legitimate procedures to deploy the THAAD battery, including the advance collection of opinion from residents and the advance evaluation of environmental effects.
The residents have held candlelight rallies every night since the THAAD deployment decision. They plan to stage a protest rally outside the golf course once a week to draw public attention toward the THAAD issue.
The THAAD push has continued despite strong objections from neighboring countries, including China and Russia, which have firmly opposed it as THAAD's X-band radar can peer deep into their territories.
The THAAD in South Korea will damage security interests of the two countries and break strategic balance in the region, while boosting arms race. (Updated)