A deepening partisan divide over the deployment of the controversial U.S. THAAD missile defense system is becoming a key national security issue in South Korea’s emerging presidential race.
In the wake of North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the United States indicated in September it would accelerate the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, known as THAAD, which uses interceptor missiles to destroy ballistic missiles.
As late as December, the South Korean Ministry of Defense said it was planning to have the THAAD battery in place and operational by May, at the agreed upon site, a Lotte conglomerate-owned golf course in the rural southeastern part of the country.
But on Monday, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun said there is a possibility the THAAD battery deployment could be delayed due to scheduling difficulties.
“There is a procedure, that the board of directors of Lotte holds a meeting to approve the final cost estimation, but that meeting has not yet been held, and we expect the meeting to be arranged soon,” he said.
The possible delay may just be a bureaucratic impasse, but it comes at a time when THAAD has become an intensely political issue in South Korea.
Its strongest supporter, President Park Geu-hye, has been impeached by the National Assembly. Opposition leaders are denouncing the U.S. anti-missile system as they position themselves for possible presidential bids. And China is reportedly exerting economic pressure on South Korea to cancel the THAAD deployment.
President Park has been embroiled in an alleged multi-million dollar influence peddling scandal that has lead to her impeachment.
She has been suspended from office while the Constitutional Court reviews the legality of the legislative motion to permanently remove her from office, a process that could take months. If the motion is upheld a new presidential election will be scheduled within 60 days of the ruling.
In the interim, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has become acting president. He has vowed to keep President Park’s conservative policies in place, including the rapid deployment of THAAD.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who last week returned to South Korea and is a prospective conservative candidate for president, has voiced his support for the U.S. missile defense system.
"I think THAAD is not (designed) for attack but is a purely defensive weapon. I think it is appropriate that our government decided to have such measure," said Ban during a visit to a South Korean naval base on Sunday.
Another likely conservative candidate Nam Kyung-pil, the governor of Gyeonggi Province, offered conditional support for THAAD, with the clear understanding that it will be used only against a possible North Korean missile attack and not against China or other countries in the region.
“The THAAD deployment is for (protecting) the Korean Peninsula and is a measure for our defense, but there has to be a promise that it will not be upgraded,” Nam told reporters at a press briefing on Monday.
Pressure from China
Public disapproval for THAAD in South Korea has been mounting. A poll conducted by Realmeter in December found that public opposition to THAAD grew to 51 percent from a 38 percent disapproval rating in July. Support for THAAD declined to 34 percent in December, down from 44 percent in July.
China’s strong objections to THAAD and reports of Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea may also have contributed to the declining support.
THAAD uses high-resolution radar designed to detect and track ballistic missile threats at long distances and high altitudes. The system’s radar and infrared seeking technology are used to program six mobile launchers and 48 interceptor missiles.
Beijing claims the system’s radar could be used against them and argues the advanced U.S. weapons deployment will only provoke North Korea to reciprocate with further nuclear and missile tests.
Beijing has reportedly taken economic retaliatory measures against South Korea that include temporarily banning some South Korean charter airline flights between the two countries. China has also been accused of limiting the number of its tourists into South Korea, banning the import of some South Korean cosmetics, and barring some K-pop Korean music groups from entering China.
The leading prospective presidential candidate is Moon Jae-in with the opposition Democratic Party of Korea. Moon currently leads the presidential race with a 26 percent approval rating, with Ban Ki-moon coming in second place with 22 percent.
The Democratic Party frontrunner has criticized President Park for unilaterally agreeing to THAAD without first diplomatically dealing with China’s concerns. He wants to delay the anti-missile system deployment until after the presidential election, and to give the National Assembly the opportunity to debate the issue and vote on whether to deploy it or not.
Even if the Constitutional Court rules to return President Park to power, there will still be a presidential election this year, as her single five-year term ends in January of 2018.
Another likely opposition candidate Lee Jae-myung, the mayor of Seongnam City, has come out even more strongly against THAAD. In addition to economic retaliation, he is concerned that the U.S. missile defense battery in South Korea might provoke a military response by North Korea or even China.
“We are worried that about a possible military conflict between North and South Korea, but through the deployment of THAAD there could be a military confrontation between the United States and China, and I believe under these circumstances South Korea can be the target of China,” he said.
Many South Koreans also see THAAD as primarily a defense against a North Korean long-range missile attack against the U.S. mainland, but that it would have limited ability to defend against a short-range attack launched on Seoul.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.