South Korea risks souring US relations in delay over missile defence system

Seoul faces delicate balancing act as it seeks to bring North Korea into dialogue

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) launcher installed upright at a golf course in Seongju, South Korea.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) launcher installed upright at a golf course in Seongju, South Korea.


South Korea has ordered a delay in the deployment of a controversial US missile defence system pending an environmental report, in a move that will ease relations with China but could put Seoul’s tight bond with Washington under strain.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system was initially installed in March on a golf course in Seongju, around 300km southeast of Seoul, to counter increasingly aggressive policies by North Korea, including a series of missile tests.

However, China believes Thaad will be used strategically against its missiles and has imposed damaging economic restrictions on trade with South Korea.

Recently elected President Moon Jae-in has ordered South Korea’s defence ministry to conduct an extensive environmental impact survey of the site for the Thaad, the Yonhap news agency reported.

“We are not saying the two launchers and other equipment that has already been deployed should be withdrawn. But those that have yet to be deployed will have to wait,” said a senior official from the president’s office.

Dealing with Thaad has been a delicate balancing act for South Korea as it seeks to bring the North into dialogue, emphasise its own solidarity and keep relations with Washington on an even keel.

There have been reports that the defence ministry has not revealed all the details of the roll-out, keeping secret the delivery of four Thaad launchers to avoid the need for a full environmental impact evaluation.

So far, two launchers have been deployed out of the total of six that make up a Thaad battery. The environmental impact assessment could take up to a year.

The deployment became a factor during the election last month, with Mr Moon saying he would review what he saw as too hasty a decision made by his predecessor Park Geun-hye.

South Korea and the United States were close allies during the Korean War (1950-53) and since then the US has made a major contribution to South Korea’s security.

However, relations have been chillier since President Donald Trump tweeted demands for South Korea pay $1 billion (€920 million) towards the operational costs for Thaad, and called for drastic changes to trade deals between the two countries.

Analysts in South Korea believe the delay could irritate the US and cause a rift ahead of a meeting between Mr Park and Mr Trump later this month in Washington.

“By ordering the survey, the Moon government is sending the US a message that it thinks negatively about the Thaad deployment and is trying to delay the installation,” Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University, told the Korea Times. “This could also cause misunderstanding that in the end the Moon government is moving to cancel the deployment. If the two sides fail to resolve the issue, the situation will become much tougher.”

Kim Yeoul-soo, an international politics professor at Sungshin Women’s University, believes China is keen for the Thaad deployment issue to be taken off the agenda until after a key meeting of the ruling Communist Party in November.

“Moon may know this,” Mr Kim said. “So, he will probably attempt to delay the deployment at least until October even though he is taking a risk on relations with the US.”