Officials delay signing accord to start Thaad talks

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Officials delay signing accord to start Thaad talks

Seoul and Washington defense officials were initially scheduled to seal an agreement to launch official talks Tuesday on the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system on the Korean Peninsula, but delayed the signing at the last minute.

The sudden postponement of the signing of the accord led to questions about whether there may be a possible mismatch between Seoul’s security agenda and diplomatic efforts involving punishing Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile aggressions.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense initially said the two sides were set to sign the agreement, which would launch a joint working group (JWG) to negotiate the terms of the anti-ballistic missile system’s placement here, by 11 a.m. Tuesday.

However, the signing of the “terms of reference” was abruptly pushed back to Wednesday or Thursday.

The South Korean Defense Ministry’s announcement came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to hold talks Tuesday with U.S. State Secretary John Kerry in Washington. Wang is on a three-day visit to the United States.

Kerry is expected to focus on persuading Beijing to agree to a United Nations Security Council resolution with stronger and more effective sanctions on North Korea following the country’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, and long-range missile launch on Feb. 7.

“The related agreement is in its final stages, but we expect it will be signed in one or two days because there are final areas that need to be negotiated,” Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said Tuesday less than 30 minutes before the accord would have been finalized. He did not elaborate further on what the final stages entailed.

Moon added that the decision to delay the signing was mutually agreed upon by Seoul and Washington. He did not say nor confirm whether the United States had asked for a postponement.

“If the agreement is concluded this week, the [joint working group] can be convened next week,” the spokesman said when asked when the talks would begin.

Yoo Jeh-seung, deputy minister for policy at South Korea’s Defense Ministry, was initially set to sign the terms of agreement Tuesday with Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea’s Eighth Army in Seoul.

Yoo was initially scheduled to depart for the United States on Tuesday after the signing to participate in the annual discussion-based tabletop exercise (TTX) to bolster Seoul and Washington’s combined deterrence capabilities against North Korea.

However, he has delayed the trip by a day to sign the agreement.

Korea and the United States are scheduled to carry out their fifth TTX at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California over three days starting on Wednesday.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Monday that Foreign Minister Wang “will have an in-depth exchange of views with U.S. Secretary of State Kerry and other senior U.S. officials on the bilateral relationship as well as issues of common interest” during his first visit to Washington this year.

Seoul and Washington have been pressing China to agree to a stronger UN Security Council resolution against Pyongyang, and the announcement of a formal agreement to launch discussions over the deployments of the Thaad battery, an issue Beijing adamantly opposes, could have a negative impact on talks with Wang.

“The Chinese foreign minister and U.S. secretary of state have decided to discuss UN Security Council sanctions and unilateral sanctions on North Korea on Feb. 24,” a high-ranking government official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “So there is no need to highlight the Thaad issue, which China has been sensitive to, right ahead of the meeting.”

South Korea has avoided committing to the deployment of a Thaad battery, but made a joint announcement with the United States on Feb. 7, following Pyongyang’s long-range missile launch, that it would officially begin negotiations on the placement of the anti-ballistic missile defense system here.

Beijing has been consistently wary of its placement in South Korea and has reacted especially sensitively toward the AN/TPY-2, a high-resolution rapidly deployable X-Band radar designed to detect, track and identify ballistic missile threats at long distances and high altitudes.

The mobile X-Band radar can scan the horizon for hostile missiles up to a maximum of 2,000 kilometers.

Both China and Russia have expressed concern that the radar could be used as a possible means of surveillance against them.

In a meeting Tuesday with Kim Chong-in, the interim leader of the main opposition Minjoo Party, Chinese Ambassador Qiu Guohong publicly stated for the first time that Beijing “strongly opposes” the deployment of the Thaad system in Korea.

“There was a lot of effort to advance our bilateral relations to what we have this very day. However, such efforts can instantaneously crumble because of one problem,” Qiu said in reference to the issue.

“If there was no Thaad issue, a new UN Security Council resolution would already have been passed,” the top Chinese envoy pointed out.

He added, “If China’s security interests are harmed because of this issue, [bilateral] relations will inevitably be damaged.”

However, Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Cho June-hyuck had a different response.

When asked whether Thaad’s deployment would be directly damaging to Beijing’s interests, he responded, “We determine it will have little effect on China’s security interests.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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