Seoul reassures deployment of Thaad is certain

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Seoul reassures deployment of Thaad is certain

Amid Washington’s escalating frustration toward the stalled deployment of a U.S. antimissile system in Korea by President Moon Jae-in’s order for an environmental study, a top security aide of Moon said Friday that the administration has no intention to defy the arrangement reached in line with the Korea-U.S. alliance.

Chung Eui-yong, head of the National Security Office of the Moon Blue House, addressed the latest developments surrounding the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery during a press briefing.

The remarks were made as U.S. President Donald Trump held a meeting at the White House with his top officials to address the issue.

“First of all, the Moon administration has no intention to fundamentally reverse the agreement reached in line with the Korea-U.S. alliance,” Chung said, adding that the government will not treat it lightly just because the decision was made by the predecessor.

Despite Beijing’s fierce protest that the system’s powerful radar system would threaten its security, Seoul and Washington agreed on the deployment in July last year to deter Pyongyang’s escalating nuclear and missile threats.

Less than two weeks before the May 9 election that brought Moon to power, key components of the unit, including a radar system and two missile launchers, were installed in the rural town of Seongju, North Gyeongsang. Four launchers also arrived in Korea and are waiting to be deployed before the end of this year.

Since he took office in May, Moon made a series of moves that will effectively delay the deployment schedule. Challenging the previous administration’s assessment that the deployment was urgent enough to skip a proper environmental study, Moon ordered a full survey, which may take up to two years. He also said the Thaad deployment issue should be taken to the National Assembly for discussion.

The move is seen as a strategy to use the Thaad deployment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington and Beijing.

Chung defended Moon’s order by saying that the administration wants to take necessary domestic steps to ensure the deployment’s democratic and procedural legitimacy and transparency.

“The environmental impact study, in particular, must be transparently carried out through reasonable and lawful means,” he said. “We will also consider Korea’s national interest and security needs above everything.”

Chung also said he met with top officials in Washington earlier this month to arrange a presidential summit, but refused to make clear if the Thaad issue is an agenda. Moon will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of this month in Washington.

“The two leaders are expected to exchange opinions on issues concerning the Korea-U.S. alliance, measures to resolve the North’s nuclear crisis and joint efforts to establish peace on the peninsula,” Chung said. Moon will also attend the G20 summit in Germany in July and have bilateral meetings with leaders of the United States, China, Japan, Russia and other major countries, he said.

On Thursday, a senior presidential aide also said it is unlikely that Moon and Trump will have a specific discussion on the Thaad issue at the summit.

Washington doesn’t seem to accept Seoul’s stance that the latest moves are a domestic issue of Korea.

Trump had a discussion about the Thaad issue with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The two secretaries also had a working breakfast before joining Trump at the Oval Office to discuss “the ongoing situation on the Korean peninsula and in the Gulf,” said Heather Nauert, spokeswoman of the State Department.

“Thaad is something that’s important not only to protect U.S. forces, to protect our alliance, but also to protect - help to further strengthen the region,” Nauert said.

“This is a conversation that’s taken place at the highest level,” she said. “We are committed to our South Korean ally. That commitment remains ironclad. We are aware, certainly, of the situation and the suspension of additional launchers, but - and we would continue to say that Thaad was an alliance decision at the time - we continue to work closely with the ROK throughout the process.”

A senior diplomatic source also told the JoongAng Ilbo that the Thaad issue is destined to be addressed at the upcoming summit.

Another source also said the Trump administration’s decision to make public the White House meeting on Thaad should be interpreted as a protest to the Moon administration.

Other senior politicians in Washington have also expressed concern. Among them is a top Democratic senator who met with Moon in Seoul last week and discussed the issue.

“It’s my fear that he thinks - I hope I’m wrong - that [Moon] thinks that South Korea has a better chance working with China to contain North Korea than working with the United States,” Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, was quoted as saying by Washington Examiner on Wednesday.

“I said to him [last week] if I were living in South Korea I would want missile defense in South Korea and I don’t understand why you don’t,” Durbin said.

He added, “What he told me is they wanted to go through due process, he thought their assembly would approve it. I can’t understand the delay, why they even need to vote on it, but I said, ‘proceed with this, but it’s $900 million-plus from the United States we’re spending to put this in place and then to maintain it. So, I mean, from where I’m sitting, it’s a pretty good deal for the South Koreans.”

Durbin also made a similar remark earlier this week during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

“Something that I thought was agreed to over a period of two years is now going to be actively debated in the assembly of South Korea to determine whether or not they will accept our expenditure of $923 million for a missile defense system,” he said, adding that he cannot understand the controversy.

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

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