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South Korea just pulled a gutsy move on the US’s THAAD missile defense system

The new liberal president just halted the deployment of THAAD.

A South Korean protester attends a rally in Seoul against the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on April 28, 2017.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea’s new president has just halted further deployment of the US’s controversial THAAD missile defense system, citing the need for a full environmental impact assessment to be carried out first. Such an assessment could take weeks, if not months, to conclude.

“We won’t do anything to (the two launchers) already deployed, but when it comes to the additional deployment (of four launchers), we have to wait for the environmental impact assessment,” a spokesperson for the South Korean president’s office told reporters.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to intercept incoming missiles from North Korea, is currently in place on a golf course in the Southeastern county of Seongju. There has been genuine concern from some in the area where THAAD is being deployed about the possible environmental impact the military installation could have.

Back in August, about 900 South Koreans shaved their heads in a mass demonstration against the government’s decision to house THAAD in Seongju, a region famed for its melon farming. Activists said they were concerned that the system's sophisticated radar could harm their crops and that having a missile system nearby would potentially make the area a target in wartime.

At another demonstration in July, the governor of Seongju stood in front of a crowd of 5,000 protesters and wrote “No to the deployment of THAAD in Seongju” using his own blood. (Seriously.)

But these environmental concerns aren’t the only — or even the most important — reason that South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, has decided to put the THAAD deployment on hold.

The real story is that Moon is far, far less hawkish on North Korea than Washington is. Moon is a career human rights lawyer and the son of North Korean refugees. During his campaign, he pledged to review his predecessor’s decision to allow the US to deploy the THAAD system and said he wants to improve relations with North Korea, including reopening a joint industrial park on the Northern side of the border that the previous president had said was funneling money to Kim Jong-un’s regime in Pyongyang.

Moon is also concerned about economic retaliation from China, which staunchly opposes THAAD, seeing it as a threat to its military capabilities.

That stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s far more aggressive stance toward the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang. Fearful that North Korea is rapidly developing missiles capable of hitting mainland America, the administration has sent some of the US Navy’s most powerful warships to South Korea, and top administration officials are openly talking about a potential preemptive military strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

They also sped up the deployment of the THAAD system — which is primarily designed to intercept missiles coming from North Korea.

With the blessing of the previous administration in South Korea, the Trump administration quickly stepped up the timeline for THAAD’s deployment, in large part because of the increased belligerence from the North. And as of May 2, the system is operational.

But another reason for the rapid deployment was to make it that much harder for the next administration in South Korea to reverse the decision.

So far, it doesn’t look like Moon’s administration is actually trying to reverse the decision to allow THAAD to be deployed, but it is trying to slow it down dramatically. "We are not saying the two launchers and other equipment that have already been deployed should be withdrawn. But those that have yet to be deployed will have to wait," the senior official said.

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