South Korea halts U.S. missile defense installation

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South Korea cites an “environmental assessment” as the reason newly elected president Moon Jae-in suspended the deployment of an American missile defense system, set to be installed there. The suspension marks a meaningful policy break with the United States regarding North Korea.

A senior official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul commented about the halted deployment, stating Wednesday that two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system launchers already installed would remain, however four launchers planned to be deployed would be delayed, pending the outcome of an environmental assessment. A South Korean law mandates than any military installation exceeding 330,000 square meters requires an analysis of environmental and social effects.

However, the move is thought to possibly be a concession to China, as they reportedly view the missile defense system, known as Thaad, to be a potential threat. In response to the Thaad deal, Beijing placed economic sanctions on Seoul that discouraged Chinese tourism and punished South Korean companies in China.

Moon, who won the South Korean presidency last month, felt that the Thaad deal with the U.S. was rushed in order to force him to comply. Reportedly, he says South Korea must “learn to say no” to Washington DC, especially given the pressure he’s getting from Thaad installation protesters and South Korean businesses.

Moon’s stance comes at at time when the White House has taken a hard line in confronting North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. This latest move may disrupt plans to unify the U.S., Japan and South Korea against North Korea. But Moon feels he can resolve problems between North and South Korea with dialogue, and he’s made some efforts to relieve conflict by encouraging aid groups to visit North Korea. The North Korean government rejected those offers, however.

Moon’s supporters say he is only attempting to comply with the law.  “The previous administration wasn’t really clear and transparent about the review process, and basically this is a legal procedure,” said Choi Jong-kun, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Choi said Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was impeached for accusations of corruption, and that Moon was following legal channels, as appropriate. “The previous government failed to defend the constitutionality of the legal process in many fields,” Choi said. “So this president cannot repeat those same mistakes.”

Choi concluded, “Is he saying ‘no’ to the United States? No. He is saying ‘yes’ to his constitutional responsibility.”

Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on United States-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, reportedly said American officials need to explain the need for the defense system to the new administration.

“Thaad is at risk of becoming overly politicized,” Mr. Snyder wrote. “And both sides need to take a deep breath and reaffirm common objectives and means for dealing with them rather than allowing Thaad to become a neuralgic and reflexive object of confrontation.”

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “We continue to work with the Korean government on this and have been transparent about our actions through this process.” The pentagon notes that the missile defense deployment agreement was reached with the South’s last administration, and that there is precedent for Mr. Moon’s delay given President Trump’s aversion to some Obama-era agreements.

Some estimates say the environmental study could take more than a year to complete. In the meantime, according to American military officials, the currently installed Thaad system became operational in April. It will provide a limited defense in the event of a North Korean attack.

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