South Korea keen to deploy US anti-missile system by May

Models of Lockheed Martin's PAC-3, PAC-3 MSE and Thaad missiles at the Japan Aerospace 2016 air show in October in Tokyo. Opposition leaders in South Korea have called on Ms Park to reassess the Thaad system deployment.
Models of Lockheed Martin's PAC-3, PAC-3 MSE and Thaad missiles at the Japan Aerospace 2016 air show in October in Tokyo. Opposition leaders in South Korea have called on Ms Park to reassess the Thaad system deployment.PHOTO: REUTERS

Defence Ministry trying to finish installation amid political turmoil in wake of Park's impeachment

SEOUL • South Korea is moving to finalise the deployment of an advanced United States missile defence system amid concerns that it could be derailed by the political paralysis in Seoul.

The Defence Ministry is trying to finish its installation by May next year at the latest in the face of political uncertainty following an impeachment vote against President Park Geun Hye, government sources said on Sunday.

Her presidency is now in limbo pending the outcome of a Constitutional Court review of the Dec 9 impeachment vote. The court's review may take up to 180 days.

President Park has been stripped of her executive powers over an influence-peddling scandal involving her long-time friend Choi Soon Sil. The scandal erupted in late October and has drawn large street protests in Seoul for the past seven Saturdays, with the crowds calling for Ms Park to step down immediately.

Analysts have said the Constitutional Court will be under extreme pressure to uphold Parliament's decision, given the widespread public anger.

If the court upholds last Friday's Parliament vote to impeach her, a new election would be held within 60 days to pick a successor who will serve a full five-year term.

All the top contenders are from the opposition parties. Their leaders have called on Ms Park to reassess deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system and even suggested putting the decision to a referendum.

"The opposition leaders who run for president will be getting support from those Koreans who oppose the deployment of Thaad," Professor Moon Chung In, an emeritus professor of politics at Yonsei University, told the New York Times.

Ms Park's decision to deploy the Thaad system has angered China, even though Washington and Seoul have said it is meant only to defend South Korea against the North. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen this year after Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests and a string of missile launches.

In its official response to the impeachment vote against President Park, China's Foreign Ministry last Friday again voiced strong opposition to the planned Thaad deployment. "As a close neighbour, we hope South Korea can restore stability as soon as possible," said Mr Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. "However, we hold a clear and consistent stance over the Thaad issue. We firmly oppose the deployment of the Thaad system on the Korean peninsula. This affects China's security."

The Pentagon has vowed to push ahead with the planned deployment regardless of the political situation in South Korea, reported Yonhap news agency.

Last month, South Korea's Defence Ministry announced that it has reached a tentative land swop deal with a major conglomerate to acquire the planned site for Thaad.

The Ministry of National Defence said it agreed to give the Lotte Group state-owned land near Seoul in exchange for the Lotte Skyhill Country Club in the south-eastern Seongju area. The ministry expects to seal the exchange deal next month, hoping to finish constructing the facility within six months, reported Yonhap on Sunday.

"The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system seemingly doesn't require much (preparatory) time, since the Seongju golf course is already equipped with power and water supply facilities, and a traffic system," said an official of the ministry on condition of anonymity.

Yonhap reported that the Defence Ministry is considering skipping an environmental impact study in order to speed up the process.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'South Korea keen to deploy US anti-missile system by May'. Print Edition | Subscribe