The South Korean government has suspended the deployment of the American THAAD missile defense system intended to protect them and Japan from a potential North Korean nuclear strike.

The system, although specifically defensive in its capabilities, has drawn harsh criticism from North Korea and its largest ally, China, and was approved by the South Korean government prior to the election of the new liberal President Moon Jae-in.  According to a statement made by the South Korean government, the existing platforms will not be removed, but the four additional launchers President Moon claims he was never apprised of will no longer be deployed until “a full-blown environmental impact assessment is completed.”

President Moon would seem to be making good on a campaign promise to his constituents in this decision.  Throughout his campaign, he called for the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system roll out to be halted, stating that any further decision regarding its use should be brought before the nation’s parliament for discussion.

Moon has continued to call for open communications with North Korea, even amidst an uptick in ballistic missile tests, and has stated that his nation must “learn to say no” to Washington.  As a part of his softened position on North Korea, Moon has attempted to send aid workers over the border, but Kim Jong Un has repeatedly rebuked such offers.

The THAAD system, which uses ballistic projectiles that aren’t armed with explosive warheads to intercept missiles before they are able to reach their target destinations, is equipped with a powerful radar array that China claims can be used to spy on equipment placements within their borders.  In recent weeks, however, China has shifted its complaints toward claims that the placement of the system is exacerbating tensions between North Korea, its neighbor to the South, and the United States.

The THAAD system is not without its detractors within South Korea as well.  Protests were sparked as the missile platforms were deployed, and some credit Moon’s criticism of the U.S. strategy on North Korea with aiding in his victory in the presidential election in April, after his predecessor was forced out of office due to a massive corruption scandal.

The previous government failed to defend the constitutionality of the legal process in many fields,” Choi Jong-kun, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, said. “So this president cannot repeat those same mistakes.” He added: “Is he saying ‘no’ to the United States? No. He is saying ‘yes’ to his constitutional responsibility.”

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The THAAD system was declared operational one week before President Moon took office, and since then Chinese citizens have taken part in boycotts of South Korean goods and have even staged displays wherein they destroy products imported from South Korea.  A tourism boycott reportedly has caused a 40% drop in Chinese citizens visiting the nation, and South Korean businesses operating in China have suffered financially as well.

“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.

The system is intended to serve as a portion of a larger missile defense strategy in the region, which incorporates the Aegis Missile Defense system operated by U.S. Navy vessels in the area and Patriot missile batteries located in Japan.  These overlapping systems are designed to counter a variety of threats no single platform could account for.

This decision is sure to strain relations between Moon’s administration and the White House, as the United States continues to try to present a unified front in the face of North Korea’s nuclear efforts.  Russia and North Korea have recently begun working to shift perception of the Kim regime in North Korea, presenting the United States as the aggressors and the small Asian nation as the victim of President Trump’s bullying.  South Korea’s decision to halt U.S. defensive placements on their soil could add to that perception, weakening the American position in the international community, and potentially bolster Kim’s will to pursue weapons of mass destruction despite the financial isolation UN and American sanctions have placed on his nation.

 

Image courtesy of the Associated Press