South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in ordered a probe into the U.S.-backed THAAD missile defense system on Tuesday, potentially jeopardizing a major military project designed to intercept North Korean missiles.
In March, Washington and Seoul deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, antiballistic missile system in the county of Seongju, about 180 miles from Seoul. A fully equipped THAAD battery includes six to nine launchers — massive, boxy trucks that carry and fire missiles, in this case designed to intercept North Korean projectiles midflight. The U.S. publicly deployed two.
Yet Moon was “shocked” Tuesday to learn that four additional launchers had been deployed, presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan told a media briefing, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. The country’s defense ministry had not informed Moon of the deployment, according to Yonhap.
Moon “called Defense Minister Han Min-koo to confirm,” Yonhap reported. “Han apparently confirmed.”
The reasons for the mixup remain unclear. Neither the U.S. nor South Korean military has publicly commented.
“President Moon ordered to find out how the four additional rocket launchers were brought into the country, who made such a decision, why this has not been disclosed to the people and why this has not been reported to the new administration even to date,” Yoon said, according to the agency.
THAAD’s deployment was overseen by the country’s conservative former President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in March after months of peaceful protests. South Koreans elected Moon, a liberal, on May 9; he was inaugurated one day later. He did not get a customary two-month transition period, and is still working with Cabinet members that his predecessor appointed.
I don’t know how they’re going to play this out — you know, people are opposed to [the system], so there’s gonna be a lot of finger pointing and blame.
The system has stirred controversy, both at home and abroad. Moon has criticized Park for failing to get a parliamentary approval for THAAD — she approved it in 2016, after a North Korean nuclear test — and has not sought parliamentary approval himself.
“I don’t know how they’re going to play this out — you know, people are opposed to [the system], so there’s gonna be a lot of finger pointing and blame,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University in Seoul. “It’s hard to imagine that the [U.S.] military, just as far as inventory or paperwork go, would let four launchers with eight missiles each — so that’s 32 missiles — just slip through.”
“Moon, on his agenda, THAAD wasn’t a top agenda item,” he continued. “He didn’t have a transition period. He has people to put in place. People want him to address issues of corruption, the cost of education, structural reform in the economy. Then North Korea comes down after that. He’s got all these issues on his plate, and THAAD stuff? That was a done deal.”
South Koreans have protested the system, claiming that it constitutes a violation of the country’s sovereignty. North Korea has also complained, calling it a sign of the U.S.’s “black-hearted intention” that “clearly proves once again that the U.S. is harasser and destroyer of peace, indifferent to regional stability.”
Yet its greatest detractor is arguably Beijing, which has argued that the system is part of a U.S. strategy to contain China. It retaliated with a months-long campaign of diplomatic protests and unofficial sanctions against South Korean businesses.
Since Moon’s election, South Korea-China relations have improved. On Tuesday, South Korea’s Jeju Air announced plans to double its flights to Weihai, an eastern Chinese city, starting next week. China has also reportedly eased up on screening Korean television dramas; a Korean-Chinese joint drama “My Goddess, My Mom,” was recently told that it would soon be aired after indefinite delays, Reuters reported.
Although Moon is slated to meet President Trump at the White House in June, analysts say the Trump administration is poorly equipped to deal with a South Korea in flux. It has not yet nominated an ambassador to South Korea, or an assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific security affairs.
The U.S. has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, and a defense treaty with Seoul dating back to the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Moon promised a relatively soft line on North Korea during his campaign; during his May 10 inauguration, he vowed to “provide a turning point to lower tensions on the peninsula by firmly establishing a Northeast Asia peace regime.”
Yet North Korea has tested three missiles since then, including one on Monday, hardening his stance. He said on May 17 that there was a “high possibility” of conflict with North Korea, and that the South was ready and capable of striking back in the case of an attack.
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