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[Newsmaker] THAAD divides presidential hopefuls

 With South Korea getting ready to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries this year, the controversial US missile system remains in the spotlight as the nation’s two main presidential hopefuls wade in on the issue. 

The former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, who is currently a frontrunner among conservative voters, advocated the government’s decision to deploy THAAD, calling it an “inevitable measure” to prevent North Korea’s security threat during a “quasi-wartime” situation.  

Moon Jae-in, former leader of the Democratic Party of Korea and presidential hopeful, on the other hand, reiterated his disapproval of the bilateral agreement, but reserved judgment over whether the deal should be renegotiated under the next governments in Seoul and Washington. 

“I don’t think we can easily cancel what was agreed between Korea and the US,” said Moon in an interview with a local media outlet on Monday. “It is desirable for the next government to discuss the THAAD issue, but it doesn’t mean we should cancel the deployment and pass the decision over to the next government.”
The debate over THAAD is expected to roil the campaign trail in the 2017 presidential race, observers said, as some opposition candidates pledge to backtrack the decision to deploy THAAD, which was endorsed by the now-impeached President Park Geun-hye. 

Liberal-minded politicians, including Seongnam City Mayor Lee Jae-myeong, have denounced the THAAD deployment, claiming that it lacked proper communication and would worsen the economic and security partnership with China, who fears that the missile system would target them.

Earlier in the day, Seoul’s Defense Ministry vowed to finish the THAAD deployment by the end of the year despite backlash from China. Beijing has banned imports of Korean cosmetic products and forbidden some Korean actors and actresses from appearing on Chinese shows.

“Although China has taken a series of steps that we consider to be a retaliatory measure, we would stick to the schedule to deploy THAAD designed for North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat,” said a ministry official on the condition of anonymity.  

But the military acquisition of site for THAAD batteries could be delayed, the ministry said, as retail conglomerate Lotte Group, who owns a golf course to be used for THAAD batteries, worries that the deal would undermine its cosmetic and tourism business with China.

Under the agreement between the military and Lotte Group, the golf course located in the southeastern rural county of Seongju would be swapped with a piece of state-owned military land in Namyangju City, Gyeonggi Province.

“The swap deal is originally scheduled to be completed by January, but there is a possibility that it can be pushed back a bit,“ Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said in a press briefing on Monday. “We are going through administrative work, but the timeline is flexible.” 

The Defense Ministry and Lotte have jointly conducted appraisal of the two sites’ property value and plan to announce the result on Jan. 17. The ministry said they have finished the appraisal process and that Lotte would hold a board of directors meeting to sign off on the deal “pretty soon.” 

Meanwhile, a group of 42 opposition lawmakers called for parliamentary ratification of the biltaral agreement to deploy THAAD, saying that the measure would impose a financial burden on the Korean government -- particularly when US president-elect Donald Trump takes office. 

“Once THAAD is deployed here, we would see more THAAD coming. It would be too late to seek parliamentary approval when Trump demands more money for deploying more THAAD,” said the lawmakers from Democratic Party of Korea, People’s Party and Justice Party. 

According the Korea’s Constitution Article 60, the National Assembly has the right to consent to the conclusion and ratification of treaties pertaining to mutual assistance or mutual security, and treaties which would incur grave financial burden on the state or people.

The government and ruling Saenuri Party have asserted that the THAAD agreement does not need parliamentary approval because the THAAD agreement is an “implementation arrangement” governed by overarching ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty and Status of Forces Agreement.

By Yeo Jun-suk (