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South Korea says it will abide by US missile defense agreement

About 2,000 people rallied outside the main train station in Seoul, South Korea, July 21, 2016. Wearing yellow capes and waving banners that said "No THAAD," they called on the government to reverse its decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in Seongju.

KIM GAMEL/STARS AND STRIPES

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 9, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — Saying North Korea poses a “very serious and urgent threat,” South Korea’s national security adviser said the new government will abide by the agreement with the United States on deploying a controversial missile-defense system.

The reassurance came as the North claimed it has tested a new type of cruise missile that could strike U.S. and South Korean warships “at will” if it’s attacked. The report on the state-run Korean Central News Agency didn’t give a date, but it was clearly referring to a missile test conducted Thursday.

Chung Eui-yong, head of South Korea’s national security office, said four missiles were fired Thursday. Military officials said the missiles traveled about 125 miles before splashing into the sea off North Korea’s east coast.

The launch followed the departure of the U.S. aircraft carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan from the region after conducting joint exercises with allies South Korea and Japan.

The growing threat from the North — which insists it will continue with its nuclear weapons program despite international pressure and economic sanctions — was cited as the reason for last year’s agreement by Washington and Seoul to station a Terminal High Altitude Area defense system on the divided peninsula.

But the decision was made by former President Park Geun-hye, who has been ousted and jailed over an influence-peddling and corruption scandal.

Her successor, Moon Jae-in, took office on May 10 promising to review THAAD’s deployment and has since ordered it suspended pending a full environmental impact assessment.

Two launchers and other equipment have been installed on a former golf course in the remote southeastern area of Seongju. But four other launchers have yet to be delivered to the site.

An investigation ordered by Moon’s office concluded that the country’s defense ministry, which is still led by a Park-appointee, failed to disclose the arrival of the four launchers in the country.

The ministry also is accused of trying to divide the land being used for THAAD to avoid a full environmental study, which officials have said could take more than a year.

Chung told reporters Friday that the decision to postpone the full deployment was a domestic measure to ensure a “transparent and democratic process.” He didn’t give a timeframe.

“Our government plans to deal with the THAAD deployment with a few principles while being fully aware of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” Chung said. “The government has no intention to fundamentally change what it has promised under the Korea-U.S. alliance.”

“THAAD was a decision made to protect South Korea and U.S. Forces Korea from North Korea’s growing threats,” he added. “The government will not handle such a decision lightly just because there has been a government change.”

Many South Koreans oppose THAAD because they fear it will have negative economic and environmental effects while being positioned mainly to protect U.S. forces in southern areas. China also strongly objects to the anti-missile battery, fearing it can be used against its military.

Moon’s administration has been caught in the middle as the U.S. military is eager to get THAAD fully operational.

The issue was on the agenda of a meeting Thursday between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the State Department said.

“North Korea’s actions just prove … that something along the lines of THAAD is something that’s important to not only protect U.S. forces, to protect our alliance, and also to protect – help to further strengthen the region,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday during a briefing.

“We are aware, certainly, of the situation and the suspension of additional launchers, but — and we would continue to say that THAAD was an alliance decision at the time, and we continue to work closely with (South Korea) throughout the process,” she added.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

Components of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system arrive at Osan Air Base, South Korea, in March 2017.
JEREMY LARLEE/U.S. ARMY

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