SEOUL • South Korea will suspend any further deployment of a controversial United States missile defence system until an environmental impact assessment ordered by new President Moon Jae In is completed, his office said yesterday.
Seoul agreed last year under then President Park Geun Hye to deploy the missile interceptor system to guard against threats from nuclear- armed North Korea, despite angry opposition from Beijing - which views it as a threat to its own military capabilities.
Two missile launchers have been deployed in the southern county of Seongju, where hundreds of residents have staged fierce protests over what they see as potential environmental hazards posed by the batteries used in the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system.
There is "no need to withdraw" the two launchers that have already been deployed, said a senior official in South Korea's presidential office.
But "additional deployment (of Thaad) should be carried out only after the environmental impact assessment is over", he said. "We do not view the deployment process as urgent enough to bypass the whole environmental impact assessment." The official added that the assessment could take as long as a year.
Assistant professor Michael Raska of the military transformations programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said: "Only having two deployed will certainly minimise the strategic effectiveness of the system. Of course, that doesn't mean that they won't have any coverage at all."
The deployment freeze comes two days after Mr Moon ordered a "proper" probe into the potential environmental impact of the missile batteries in a bid to win greater public support for the project.
Four more launchers arrived recently in South Korea and are being stored at a US army base in the country, which plays host to some 28,500 US troops as a legacy of the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
The South Korean army came under fire this week after Mr Moon, who voiced ambivalence about Thaad on the campaign trail, accused it of withholding key information about progress on the system.
According to Mr Moon's office, top military brass who briefed the President's national security adviser last month deliberately withheld information about the arrival of the four new launchers. A senior defence ministry official has been removed from his position over the incident.
Defence Minister Han Min Koo - appointed by ousted president Park and expected to be replaced soon - admitted the presence of the new launchers only when pressed by Mr Moon in a phone conversation last week.
China - South Korea's biggest trading partner - has in recent months taken a series of measures against South Korean businesses, moves which have been seen as economic retaliation for Thaad.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG