The new president of South Korea put the brakes on an upcoming deployment there of four American missile defense systems, in what has emerged as a contentious domestic fight over how Seoul juggles its relations with China, North Korea, and the United States.
The administration of new president Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning politician who favors rapprochement with North Korea, suspended the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems (THAAD), in what appears to be a concession to Chinese objections to the deployment. The move is in direct defiance of the American policy to confront North Korea’s growing ballistic and mid-range missile programs.
Moon in some ways is inheriting a political headache from his disgraced predecessor, who greenlighted the deployment of the defense systems before being impeached and removed from office in early March, just as the first two THAAD systems were being installed on a golf course.
Moon, who campaigned on the promise of opening a new era of engagement with North Korea, complained that the THAAD deployment was rushed through, giving his government no chance to take part in the decision making process. Still, he agreed that the two systems that had already arrived would stay, but wanted to pause further deployments.
Moon has said that Seoul needs to “learn to say no” to Washington. But he has also acknowledged that he has to bring Washington along if he is to open talks with North Korea.
Moon and his new government reacted angrily when they discovered they had not been informed about the upcoming arrival of four more interceptors, and ordered an environmental assessment before they arrive.
“My order for a probe on THAAD is purely a domestic measure and I want to be clear that it is not about trying to change the existing decision or sending a message to the United States,” Moon told visiting U.S. Senator Dick Durbin in Seoul last week.
There is little indication that the new government is looking to significantly restructure relations with the United States, which is a major trading partner, maintains 23,000 troops in the country, and sells billions of dollars worth of advanced military technology to Seoul.
Still, the halt on the THAAD deployment can be seen as a new wrinkle in an old relationship, and a significant win for Beijing, which has strongly objected to the radar and missile interceptor system being deployed on the peninsula.
China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner, accounting for about a quarter of its exports, and has sought to make the THAAD deployment sting. Citing health and safety issues, China shut down 87 of 99 of South Korean conglomerate Lotte’s department stores in China in the days after THAAD arrived in South Korea, and stopped work on South Korean-funded theme park.
In order to ease tensions, just days after his election Moon sent an envoy to Beijing to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Upon his return, China stopped blocking Lotte’s web site, and walked back some other economic pressures.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated Beijing’s opposition to the missile-defense system, which China fears could be used to neuter its own strategic missile forces.
“China’s stance of opposing the THAAD deployment by the U.S. in [South Korea] is clear, consistent and firm,” the spokesperson said.
Moon also recently sent his top national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, to Washington to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to discuss the threat from North Korean missiles.