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THAAD Remains Contentious Issue for US-South Korea Summit

FILE - Protesters attend an anti-THAAD proest in Seongju, South Korea.
FILE - Protesters attend an anti-THAAD proest in Seongju, South Korea.

South Korean officials are voicing support for the controversial U.S. Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in advance of President Moon Jae-in’s summit this week with U.S. President Donald Trump, but it remains a contentious issue as lawmakers in Washington voice concerns over deployment delays.

THAAD is an advanced anti-missile battery that uses high-resolution radar, infrared seeking technology and interceptor missiles to basically shoot down incoming ballistic missiles.

In 2016 Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy THAAD to help defend South Korea against North Korea’s increasing ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities.

Protecting U.S. troops

THAAD would also be used to protect the 28,000 American military personnel in South Korea.

Republican Senator Cory Gardner from Colorado and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey recently sent a letter to President Trump urging him to prioritize the THAAD deployment in his talks this week with President Moon.

“We ask you to reiterate to President Moon that the decision to deploy THAAD was an alliance decision and protects both U.S. troops and millions of South Korean citizens, while not posing any threat to South Korea’s neighbors,” said the letter to the president.

Rushed deployment

The THAAD deployment was agreed to by President Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye. However in March, Park was impeached for her alleged ties to a multi-million dollar corruption scandal.

Soon after the progressive South Korean leader took office in May, Moon ordered that the full deployment of THAAD be delayed until an environmental impact study is completed.

On Monday, Kang Kyung-wha, the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, reiterated the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) support for the eventual THAAD deployment.

“My government has no intention to basically reverse the commitments made in the spirit of the ROK -US alliance. Going through the environmental-impact assessment is an issue of domestic due process. It does not mean that we will cancel or reverse the decision to deploy THAAD,” she said.

China retaliation

President Moon is also trying to manage THAAD objections from China and vocal opposition at home.

Beijing has objected to THAAD’s powerful radar, which could potentially monitor China’s military activities, as a threat to its security, and had reportedly imposed informal economic restrictions on South Korea as retaliation.

The Hyundai Research Institute said if sustained, China’s curbs on travel, cosmetics and entertainment could cost South Korea over $7 billion this year. However in the wake of Moon’s decision to suspend the THAAD deployment, there are indications Beijing has been easing its selective ban on bilateral trade.

To resolve the issue, Zhang Tuosheng, a foreign policy analyst with the Beijing-based China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies (CFISS), urged South Korea and the U.S. to take measures to reassure China about its legitimate security concerns.

“For example, the THAAD radar system can be changed, locking the radar to deployment mode and the direction of the radar, where the latter is more important, and proactively providing China with technological materials and data regarding the THAAD system,” Tuosheng wrote this week in an article for the East Asia Foundation.

Embassy protest

Over the weekend, anti-THAAD demonstrators peacefully marched outside the American Embassy in central Seoul. Organizers say over 3,000 protesters participated.

Some THAAD opponents in South Korea argue it is not worth provoking Beijing and Pyongyang. Analysts say the high altitude missile defense system would be essentially ineffective against a massive North Korea artillery attack that could target 25 million people living in Seoul and other areas in near the border. Others living near the deployment site are concerned the radar system could cause health and environmental problems.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report.