Thaad is not urgent: Blue House

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Thaad is not urgent: Blue House

The Blue House challenged Wednesday the previous administration’s assessment that deployment of a U.S.-led antimissile system is urgent enough to skip a proper environmental study.

“North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests continued for a long time,” a senior aide to President Moon Jae-in said. “We are skeptical if the deployment [of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system] was really urgent to pass over transparency and procedures required by the law.”

Following a series of North Korean provocations, Seoul and Washington agreed in July 2016 that the U.S. military would deploy a Thaad battery to South Korea.

Key components of the unit, including a radar system and two missile launchers, were installed on a former golf course in Seongju, North Gyeongsang, on April 26, less than two weeks before the May 9 election that brought Moon to power.

A Thaad battery typically consists of six launchers, 48 interceptors, a fire control and communication unit and radar. The military authorities of Korea and the United States planned to complete the deployment before the end of this year.

A fact-finding mission into the deployment process ordered by Moon last month found that the Ministry of National Defense designed the plan to sidestep an environmental impact study required by law. A summary environmental impact study began in December based on the ministry’s plan, but Moon ordered a proper survey, effectively stalling the deployment schedule.

The presidential aide said Wednesday that he cannot say definitively how long the new study will take. But he hinted that it may take nearly two years. “We reviewed the case of Guam deployment [in 2015], and the environmental study was conducted in Guam,” he said. “It is my understanding that the study took 23 months.”

He also said the four launchers currently being stored in a U.S. military base in Korea should not be deployed before the environmental study ends. “It will be difficult to make additional deployment and operate the system while the environmental survey is ongoing,” he said.

The presidential aide, however, made clear that already installed radar and missile launchers won’t be withdrawn. “There is nothing we can do about them,” he said.

The official also said it remains to be seen if the Thaad deployment issue will be discussed at the upcoming presidential summit between Moon and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Washington at the end of this month.

“The agenda of past summits are often larger issues, such as plans to bolster the Korea-U.S. alliance and end the North’s nuclear arms program,” the official said. “During the discussion of agenda setting, the Thaad issue may be raised. But it is rare for presidents to discuss one particular issue. We cannot decide the actual conversation by intentionally placing or removing an agenda and we don’t know what the two leaders will actually talk about.”

Another official of the Blue House also said Wednesday that the agendas for the upcoming summit are still being discussed. “Not all are confirmed yet,” he said.

After Moon ordered the fact-finding mission, concerns were raised that he wants to delay the deployment schedule and eventually scrap it. Moon and his national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, repeatedly stressed to the United States that the latest series of moves concerning the deployment is a domestic measure to secure procedural legitimacy. They stressed that the Moon administration will not abort the deployment.

“If the Blue House uses a stalling tactic for the Thaad deployment, it can be read as a signal to deny the international community’s concerns on the North Korean nuclear crisis,” Namgung Young, an international relations professor of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It may threaten the basis of the Korea-U.S. alliance ahead of the summit, and it can also give the wrong signal to China that the deployment can be withdrawn.”

The Blue House said an additional investigation will take place to find out the Defense Ministry’s attempt to sidestep the necessary environmental study. “The ministry will conduct a probe first,” the presidential source said. “If necessary, they may ask the Board of Audit and Inspection to conduct an audit.”

“Intentional misrepresentations were seen [in the decision-making process of the Thaad deployment],” he said. “It is necessary to find out who made the distortions.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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