South Korea Voices Support for U.S. Antimissile System

June 27, 2017

By CHOE SANG-HUN New York Times


SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s foreign minister indicated strongly on Monday that her government would honor an agreement to deploy an American missile-defense system despite protests and economic retaliation from China.

The deployment of the antimissile battery, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, had been approved under Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president who was ousted on corruption charges in March.

But President Moon Jae-in, who replaced Ms. Park in a special election last month, has cast doubt on the deal.

And the fate of the missile battery, some of whose key components have already been installed in South Korea, has threatened to become a contentious topic when Mr. Moon meets with President Trump in Washington this week.

Since taking office, Mr. Moon has ordered his government to stop installing additional components of the Thaad battery until it completes a domestic review, including an environmental assessment.

That move has provoked fears in Washington that Mr. Moon might be looking for an excuse to cancel the deal, even though he insisted that it did not mean that his government would reverse the decision made under Ms. Park.

On Monday, the South Korean foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, said the domestic review was to strengthen public support for the missile system by shoring up its political legitimacy. Calling the deployment “an alliance decision,” she said South Korea would “continue to collaborate on the basis of mutual trust.”

“My government has no intention to basically reverse the commitments made in the spirit of” the alliance, Ms. Kang said at a forum jointly organized by the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

A component of the antimissile system rising above the tree line in Seongju this month. The United States insists the system is necessary to guard against the growing ballistic missile threats from North Korea. Credit Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The United States and Ms. Park’s government had insisted that Thaad was

necessary to guard against the growing ballistic missile threats from North Korea.

But China has vehemently criticized the Thaad deployment at its doorstep, calling it a threat to its own national security. In recent months, many South Korean brands have been boycotted in China in what was considered to be economic retaliation.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Moon expressed doubt that Ms. Park’s decision was in the country’s best interest. He also questioned whether Thaad would be effective in defending South Korea from the North’s missiles.

As he and his conservative rivals have bickered over the system, it has become a crucial test of Mr. Moon’s attitude toward the alliance with Washington.

Since his election, however, Mr. Moon has sought to dispel misgivings that his government would weaken that relationship, repeatedly emphasizing its importance. With North Korea’s missile programs advancing, he has also vowed to bolster South Korea’s defense.

Ms. Kang’s remark on Monday was one of the clearest indications from Mr. Moon’s government that it would honor the Thaad deal for the sake of the alliance.

Two days earlier, thousands of demonstrators briefly encircled the American Embassy in central Seoul during a peaceful anti-Thaad march.

Ms. Kang also addressed another concern in Washington by saying that her government would not hurry to try to reopen a jointly run industrial complex in the North Korean city of Kaesong. South Korea closed the complex last year after the North’s nuclear and long-range rocket tests.

During the election campaign, some aides to Mr. Moon had called for the reopening as part of Mr. Moon’s program of fostering dialogue and exchanges with North Korea. But American politicians and former government officials feared that the reopening of Kaesong, which had been a key source of hard currency for Pyongyang, would undermine international efforts to squeeze its ability to raise cash.

“We will pursue this only under the right circumstances,” Ms. Kang said. “It is something that can be pursued at a later stage when we are assured of progress in dealing with the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and we will do so in closest consultations with the United States.”

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