Installing a controversial US missile defence system in South Korea was never going to be easy but, caught between Beijing’s opposition and American insistence, the country’s new president has a strategy: delay.
Seoul suspended deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system this week following a furious campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic protests by Beijing against the US missile shield, dealing a blow to Washington’s regional security policy.
Officially, the delay is to allow for a new, comprehensive environmental impact assessment, but analysts say the move is a strategic delay by new President Moon Jae-In to dodge the tricky diplomatic situation he inherited.
“South Korea is caught between China and the United States… it can’t turn its back on either China, its largest trading partner, or the United States, its key ally,” Chonnam National University political science professor Yoon Sung-Suk told AFP.
The new government is undertaking a delicate balancing act, saying the two Thaad launchers already in place are safe, but suspending further deployment until completion of the probe – ordered after an allegedly botched roll out of the missile shield by the previous government.
“Moon is playing for time, trying to avoid irritating Washington but find a way to wiggle out of the current diplomatic impasse,” Mr Yoon added, saying he could be hoping that by the time the probe is finished the security landscape will have changed.
“It’s given him a year, and in the meantime he’ll be doing his utmost to make diplomacy work on the North Korea issue.”
Thaad was approved by Mr Moon’s ousted predecessor, conservative president Park Geun-Hye, who then steamrollered the project through a hasty environmental review during her last months in office as she became ensnared in a massive corruption scandal.
As it became apparent Ms Park would lose power, the administration started “hurrying up with the deployment, sidestepping due procedures and shrouding it in secrecy,” Kim Dong-Yub at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University told AFP.
The legacy of secrecy has continued, with Mr Moon this week removing a Ms Park-appointed defence ministry official for “intentionally” doctoring reports to hide the fact that four new launchers had arrived in the country.
‘Dishonest but brilliant’
Mr Moon is trying to balance Beijing’s implacable opposition to Thaad – which it says threatens its own military capabilities – with US insistence that the system is a key buffer against Pyongyang’s aggression.
Stalling with the pretext of an environmental assessment is “dishonest but brilliant”, said Andrei Lankov, Korearisk.com director and professor at Kookmin University.
Mr Moon cannot be seen to immediately cave in over Thaad as “it will show that South Korea is vulnerable to Chinese blackmail, and also it will annoy the Americans,” Mr Lankov said.
But if he continues with deployment, Beijing is likely to intensify informal economic sanctions – which have seen Chinese tourists abandon the South in droves and a damaging boycott of retail giant Lotte’s stores on the mainland.
“China is determined to punish South Korea for Thaad deployment… South Korea will face large-scale sanctions from their main trading partner which is not what they want,” he said, warning Beijing could tighten the screws further if they wanted to.
Beijing’s economic retaliation, ordered in April as Thaad was partially deployed, is now likely to be eased to “reward” Mr Moon for the suspension, Mr Lankov said.
The key question now is how the US will react to the delay, whether they will see it as a breach of alliance solidarity, or whether they will understand Seoul’s delicate position and play along.
So far, the Pentagon has said the US trusts South Korea’s official stance that the Thaad deployment was an alliance decision and will not be reversed.
But “under Donald Trump you never know. Especially because he explicitly said South Koreans should pay for Thaad deployment which annoyed a lot of people here,” Mr Lankov said, referring to the president’s threat to make Seoul foot the billion-dollar bill.
But analyst Kim Dong-Yub said there was no question that the system would be deployed – eventually.
“It is unthinkable that South Korea makes a U-turn, which would upend the decades-long alliance with the US.”