Newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has ordered a probe into the American THAAD missile defense system recently deployed to his nation after his Defense Ministry failed to inform him that four additional launchers for the THAAD had been brought into the country, according to local reports emerging on Tuesday.
The THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) was first deployed in South Korea in March, which was an expedited deadline brought about by North Korean threats of preemptive nuclear missile strikes. Although the system is a purely defensive one (the missile interceptors launched from the THAAD do not carry explosive warheads but rather rely on kinetic energy to destroy targeted missiles), its deployment in South Korea has prompted a political backlash from not only North Korea, but from nearby neighbor China.
China has recently shifted its rhetoric toward claiming the placement of the THAAD system serves as an instigating factor in the rising tensions between the West and North Korea’s Supreme Leader. Their current talking points suggest that placing the THAAD near North Korea adds to the mounting tension on the Korean peninsula, but their previous remarks have betrayed China’s real concerns. A weapon platform with no offensive capability shouldn’t raise too many concerns across the DMZ in North Korea, but the THAAD’s advanced radar system used to target launched missiles could easily be used to keep tabs on equipment and troop movements as far away as China – something the Chinese military isn’t particularly keen on.
Moon’s successful presidential campaign relied heavily on his liberal stance on North Korean relations, and although he has made public remarks in support of U.S. assistance in defending his nation, Moon also called for a parliamentary review of the decision to deploy the THAAD in South Korea. Moon has repeatedly called for increased engagement with North Korea, despite the North’s multiple missile test launches since his election, each of which has been called a significant setback for Moon’s hopes at negotiation.
“President Moon said it was very shocking” to hear the four additional launchers had been installed without being reported to the new government or to the public, presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan told a media briefing.
“President Moon ordered to find out how the four additional rocket launchers were brought into the country, who made such a decision, why this has not been disclosed to the people and why this has not been reported to the new administration even to date,” Yoon said.
Neither the U.S. military nor the South Korean military have made any public statements regarding the additional four launchers, and it is not immediately clear whether or not they were always intended for deployment or if they are a part of strategy shift in the region.
“I don’t know how they’re going to play this out — you know, people are opposed to [the system], so there’s gonna be a lot of finger-pointing and blame,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University in Seoul. “It’s hard to imagine that the [U.S.] military, just as far as inventory or paperwork go, would let four launchers with eight missiles each — so that’s 32 missiles — just slip through.”
North Korea, not one to miss out an opportunity to paint themselves as the victim in their international standoff with Western powers bent on seeing a non-nuclear North Korea, used their state-owned press to claim this development indicates America’s “black-hearted intention,” going to on to say that it “clearly proves once again that the U.S. is harasser and destroyer of peace, indifferent to regional stability.”
The United States currently has approximately 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea thanks to a defense treaty dating back to the end of the Korean War in 1953. President Moon is scheduled to meet with President Trump in June, which may be their first formal opportunity to discuss the THAAD, as a U.S. Ambassador to South Korea has yet to be appointed.
Image courtesy of U.S. Pacific Command