Moon about-faces on Thaad deployment
Two Thaad launchers are currently operational in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Seoul, while four more are stored on a U.S. military base.
Presiding over a National Security Council meeting at the Blue House on Saturday at 1 a.m., following North Korea’s late-night launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Friday, Moon said the South Korean government “strongly condemned” the launch, calling it a “serious threat” to international peace and security.
Moon said South Korea and the United States will engage in a “much stronger show of military force” than the North’s launch, and that Seoul will call on the UN Security Council to draft tougher sanctions against the regime.
If necessary, he continued, the South Korean government may consider implementing unilateral sanctions.
Moon’s push for Thaad was made 15 hours after the Ministry of National Defense said it would expand Thaad’s environmental impact assessment and decide whether to deploy the battery based on the result.
The announcement, made Friday morning, created confusion since Moon had stressed he would not reverse the deployment, which was originally supposed to be completed by the end of the year.
Moon’s Blue House has been at odds with the Defense Ministry over the deployment procedures ever since the left-leaning president was elected in a snap election in May, replacing Park Geun-hye, who signed the missile shield agreement with the United Sates last year.
Moon’s administration has urged for “procedural legitimacy,” trying to buy enough time to persuade Seongju County residents and China, who are vehemently against the deployment, that Thaad is necessary for South Korea’s national security.
On Saturday, Blue House aides said Seoul still does not intend to scrap the Thaad agreement with Washington, but that the government will make the final decision after reviewing the results of a full-scale environmental assessment, which is likely to end late next year.
On Moon’s decision to deploy four additional mobile launchers, his aides said it would be a “temporary deployment.”
“President Moon sees North Korea’s missile threat with that much urgency,” a senior official told reporters when asked why Moon was suddenly rushing through Thaad’s placement. “We’re trying to seek procedural legitimacy through the environmental impact assessment, yet feel the need to act fast on the situation that’s unfolding.”
With Moon’s first bilateral summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping less than a month away, local experts fear Beijing might call off talks in retribution.
After North Korea’s ICBM launch, China, its biggest ally, merely urged the North to abide by UN Security Council resolutions.
The missile, fired on Friday at 11:40 p.m. from Chagang Province, which borders China, peaked at an altitude of 3,700 kilometers and traveled nearly 1,000 kilometers before landing in the East Sea, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The military said the missile was a more advanced version of the one tested on July 4, which peaked 900 kilometers lower and traveled 60 kilometers shorter. Very rarely has North Korea fired a missile at night. A local military official said it appeared Pyongyang was trying to display its ability to carry out a test at night, which usually makes observation more difficult.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the missile flew for about 45 minutes before landing in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. No damage was reported.
On its state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Saturday, North Korea said leader Kim Jong-un personally ordered the launch and observed the test alongside the country’s scientists and missile developers.
According to the agency, the projectile was the same Hwasong-14 version tested on July 4, and it reached an altitude of 3,724.9 kilometers and flew for 47 minutes and 12 seconds before landing on its target in the East Sea with “exact precision.”
The regime said the missile was intentionally flown at a steep angle in order not to inflict harm on neighboring countries.
“The test-fire reconfirmed the reliability of the ICBM system,” the KCNA said in English, “demonstrated the capability of making a surprise launch of ICBM in any region and place any time, and clearly proved that the whole U.S. mainland is in the firing range of the DPRK missiles.”
DPRK is short for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The test, it continued, was meant to send a “grave warning” to the United States that their “aggression-minded state would not go scot-free if it dares provoke the DPRK.”
In a separate statement, issued by an unnamed spokesman for the Consultative Council for National Reconciliation, which was released through the KCNA on Saturday, North Korea slammed Moon’s five-year strategy for the North as “sophism,” saying he was no different from his conservative predecessors, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.
Moon’s strategy “denies the fundamental issues such as the defusing of political and military confrontation between the North and the South and includes odds and ends,” the statement read, lashing out at the Moon Blue House for trying to seek North Korean denuclearization through dialogue.
“This goes to prove that the present South Korean authorities are keen on worrying about their ‘administrative results’ and popularity.”
North Korea’s latest missile test was held a day after the 64th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War with a ceasefire, which North Korea celebrates as Victory Day.
North Korea watchers had thought Pyongyang would launch a missile on Thursday after a Pentagon source predicted last week that a launch was likely to occur around that time. North Korea has a history of highlighting crucial national holidays with military provocations.
One reason why Pyongyang did not carry out a missile test on Thursday could be that it rained, according to local experts, noting that missile parts are highly sensitive to humidity.
North Korea’s missile tests are a critical blow for Moon, whose North Korea policy is grounded in dialogue and engagement.
Pyongyang still has not given a direct response to Seoul on its offer to hold inter-Korean military talks to cease all acts of hostility near the border. The North also has not responded to Seoul’s proposition to discuss a reunion for war-torn families tomorrow.
The government said it was still open to the offers. The last time Seoul held government talks with Pyongyang was in December 2015, under the former Park Geun-hye administration. The last family reunion was held in October of that year.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]