U.S. delays survey of Thaad site

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U.S. delays survey of Thaad site

The U.S. military has failed to submit a blueprint for the site of an antimissile system, hampering the Moon Jae-in administration’s plan to conduct a full-scale survey of the environmental impact of the system, Korean government sources told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday.

After complaining about the procedural flaws of the U.S. forces in South Korea’s (USFK) installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Seongju, North Gyeongsang, during the previous administration, the Moon administration said it will take the proper steps required for the deployment, including a full-scale environmental impact study.

The survey, which was supposed to be completed by the end of last year, has not even begin, a government source said.

The first step to begin the survey is receiving a plan from the USFK on how it will use the 700,000-square-meter (123.5-acre) site that Seoul has offered, but the government has not yet received it.

“It’s a new year, but the USFK have not submitted the plan,” the source said. “Our contract with the company selected to create the environmental impact assessment report expired as of December last year, and we are adjusting the contract because of the delayed submission of the site plan.”

Seoul and Washington agreed to deploy a Thaad battery in July 2016 to better counter growing North Korean threats. Components of the Thaad battery arrived at the U.S. military’s Osan Air Base on March 7, 2017, and a radar system and two launchers were installed on a former golf course in Seongju on April 26, 2017 - less than two weeks before the May 9 presidential election that brought Moon to power.

Shortly after he took office, Moon halted the deployment and ordered an environmental survey to boost the legitimacy of the process. But after North Korea fired intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July 2017, Moon ordered aides to start discussions with the United States on deploying four additional mobile Thaad launchers.

By September 2017, a Thaad battery was fully deployed in Seongju after the Ministry of Environment cleared the way for the U.S. military to complete the installation, announcing that a summary study found no safety problems. The government insisted that the deployment is temporary, pending a full-scale environmental impact study.

The Ministry of Defense said the USFK will submit its site usage plan soon.

“We will get it soon. The USFK was too busy to prepare it properly,” a ministry official said.

The comment is different from Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo’s remarks at the National Assembly last fall. When Rep. Oh Shin-hwan of the Bareunmirae Party asked about the progress in the environmental impact study on Oct. 26, 2018, Jeong replied, “The U.S. side is creating a plan. I believe it is in the final stages.”

Some speculate the USFK are intentionally delaying the submission amid North Korea-U.S. nuclear negotiations. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump will meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, for their second summit next week, and observers suspect the deployment status of the advanced anti-missile system will be changed depending on the outcome of the talks.

“The Pentagon and the USFK are having a serious discussion on the Thaad base,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo. “The Pentagon and the USFK have different opinions. The Pentagon thinks that there is little reason to keep the Thaad in South Korea after the North’s denuclearization.”

As of now, the Thaad base in Seongju is surrounded by Korean protesters. Because of the blockade, the USFK use helicopters to transport fuel for the Thaad battery’s generator two or three times a week.

The barracks and kitchen for the U.S. soldiers at the Thaad battery have been constructed, but the missile launchers are still placed on a temporary pad. Pouring concrete to permanently install the launchers is only allowed after the full-scale environmental impact study.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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