South Korea Suspends Deployment of U.S. Antimissile System, Breaking With America in Concession to China

An American missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, deployed on a golf course in Seongju, South Korea, on Wednesday. (Credit: Kim Jun-Beom/YONHAP, via Associated Press)
An American missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, deployed on a golf course in Seongju, South Korea, on Wednesday. (Credit: Kim Jun-Beom/YONHAP, via Associated Press)

South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, has suspended the deployment of an American missile defense system, an apparent concession to China and a significant break with the United States on policy toward North Korea.

In comments to reporters, a senior official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul said on Wednesday that the two launchers of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system that had been installed could remain but that four launchers that had yet to be deployed would not be set up until the administration completed an environmental assessment.

The missile defense system, known as Thaad, has been contentious in South Korea and has drawn sharp criticism from China, which views the system’s radar as a threat. Beijing has taken retaliatory economic measures against Seoul, including curtailing the flow of Chinese tourists and punishing South Korean companies in China.

During his campaign, Mr. Moon, who won the presidency last month, complained that the United States and the previous South Korean administration rushed to deploy Thaad before the election to present him with a fait accompli. His decision to suspend the installation could strain relations with the White House, which has taken a hard line in confronting North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. It could also raise concerns about United States efforts to present a tough, unified position with Japan and South Korea against the North.

Mr. Moon, who has said he wants to try to resolve the North’s nuclear crisis through dialogue, has also suggested that South Korea must “learn to say no” to Washington. He has already signaled a softening stance toward North Korea by encouraging aid groups to visit the country, although the North has rejected those offers since Seoul supported new United Nations sanctions.

Analysts said that as protesters demonstrated against the Thaad installation and South Korean businesses pressured the government to improve relations with China, Mr. Moon may have decided that suspending the progress of the missile defense system was politically expedient.

“I think he is trying to find a diplomatic way to slow down the process to placate the business community and placate his political supporters,” said Stephen R. Nagy, senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Mr. Moon may also have sensed that China was not going to back down. When Lee Hae-chan, South Korea’s special presidential envoy, visited Beijing last month, President Xi Jinping did not concede anything during a meeting they jointly oversaw.

China’s strategy is to stand firm in its objections to Thaad to force Mr. Moon to modify — or even eliminate — a missile defense system that the Chinese suspect he does not like, either.

The defense system officially went into operation in late April on an abandoned golf course in Seongju, 135 miles southeast of Seoul, when two of six launchers were installed. United States military officials have said that the system is already “operational and has the ability to intercept North Korean missiles.”

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