THAAD grannies: villagers on the front line of a regional arms race that pits US against China
Documentary, which had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, captures elderly farmers at centre of international diplomatic controversy
A powerful US missile system installed in South Korea to defend it from the nuclear-armed North made international headlines this year. But the stars of a film about the project are the grandmothers who found themselves living next to some of the world’s most advanced weapons.
The South Korean documentary Soseongri shows how the deployment transformed a previously sleepy farming district into a domestic and international political battleground.
Most of the protagonists are in their 80s, enabling the documentary-makers to draw parallels between the Korean war and the peninsula’s current tensions as they recount their own nightmarish memories of the 1950-53 conflict.
Seoul last year announced the deployment of the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system to guard against growing missile threats from Pyongyang.
But the plan drew fire from both China, which saw THAAD as a threat to its own security, and residents of Seongju, the southeastern county designated to host it. Soseongri is the closest village to the former golf course where THAAD was installed in March.
The deployment sparked months of protests and demonstrators clashed with police as they struggled to prevent US army trucks carrying missile parts entering the village.
The 89-minute film, which had its world premiere at the current Busan International Film Festival, captured moments of confusion, anger and fear when elderly farmers who had spent almost all their lives in the village suddenly found themselves at the centre of international diplomatic controversy.
Military helicopters fly overhead and huge lorries roll into Soseongri along a road flanked by angry residents and anti-US activists, and hundreds of police.
“This whole thing reminds us of the war,” says one villager.
The THAAD deployment met a mixed response in the South, with surveys showing around half supported it, slightly more than a third against, and the rest undecided.
Some people welcome its defensive capability, while others see it as a US bid to bolster its military presence against China at the expense of its ally Seoul.
Beijing – the South’s top trading partner – has slapped a series of measures against South Korean businesses, widely seen as economic retaliation.
But the film does not directly address the diplomatic tit-for-tat, concentrating instead on the elderly residents’ daily lives as their village is flooded by competing groups of activists.
The villagers join the anti-THAAD protesters for fears of being the first target of a Northern attack, waving a banner reading “THAAD leaves, peace comes” and setting up tents in the road to try to stop incoming military trucks.
But hundreds of conservative, pro-THAAD activists also descend on the village to loudly accuse the residents of being “North Korea followers” and “spawn of the devil” who should be “clubbed to death”.
The villagers repeatedly drew parallels with the devastating Korean war, when airborne bombings and civilian killings over ideological differences were commonplace.
“Whenever someone was beaten to death, we ran to the bamboo forests so as to not to hear the sound,” said one.
Millions were killed in a conflict that sealed the division of the Korean peninsula, which is technically still at war after it ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Another resident added: “We were attacked by planes during the Korean war, but now our hearts and minds are hurt.”
Despite the village’s violent past and tumultuous present, much of the film features serene – and often comical – scenes of its aged inhabitants tending their crops and rice paddies or joking together in a small community hall.
Director Park Bae-il says he tried to portray how the regional arms race rattled the aged farmers’ seemingly boring but peaceful daily lives, and their deep-rooted fear of weapons and war.
“All news media only talked about politics and diplomacy over THAAD but rarely showed the actual human faces behind this controversy, or the voices of the actual people who live there,” Park said.
The film’s underlying message against conflict and weapons might sound naive or idealistic when the North and the US regularly trade threats of apocalyptic violence, he acknowledged.
“But now more than ever is the time for us to hear the voices of the people who actually went through the horrors of war.”