[Herald Interview] ‘Moon should show support for THAAD at summit’

By Yeo Jun-suk
  • Published : Jun 26, 2017 - 18:07
  • Updated : Jun 26, 2017 - 18:22

This is the second of five interviews with prominent US scholars on an upcoming South Korea-US summit and the alliance. -- Ed.

When South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets his US counterpart Donald Trump in Washington this week, he should give the US leader full assurance on the parts of the US missile shield system already deployed in South Korea, a renowned security expert said.

“At the summit, President Moon should emphasize his support for the two (THAAD) launchers already put into operation,” Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security, told The Korea Herald in an email interview. 

Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)

Short for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD looks set to be a sticking point in the first summit between Moon and Trump, who Cronin said must present a “united front” on the increasingly defiant and belligerent North Korea.

The introduction of the US advanced anti-missile system was an agreement of the two sides’ previous administrations. Since taking office in May, President Moon has taken a series of actions that many in Washington saw as attempts to delay its full rollout.

Two THAAD batteries and a radar are already deployed and are declared operational, but the rollout of the remaining four batteries face suspension of at least six months following the Moon government’s order to conduct a proper environmental impact assessment on the project site.

Cronin’s remark appears to echo mounting calls in Washington that the leaders should reinforce the firmness of their alliance amid growing signs of a rift over the deployment of the US defense asset in South Korea.

In a letter to President Trump on Friday, a total of 18 senators urged the allies’ leaders to seek a way to “expedite the procedural review,” highlighting that THAAD is an alliance decision only designed to defend South Korea and US forces stationed here.

“The environmental review is a convenient political device, albeit one that does comport with domestic law,” Cronin said. “However, in the likelihood that North Korea remains determined to field more and more capable missiles, then it let us hope the environmental study does not undermine the ability of the alliance to bolster deterrence and defense,” Cronin said.

Regarding Moon’s recent emphasis on bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, Cronin struck a cautious tone, saying ensuring meaningful progress on North Korean denuclearization should be the prerequisite to any dialogue.

“The Trump administration will be keen to work with President Moon if there is tangible evidence that Pyongyang will halt its nuclear and missile tests as the first step toward reducing tension,” the scholar said.

“The real question is whether (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un is prepared to break with longstanding North Korean practice of provoking, escalating, de-escalating, pocketing concessions, and then starting the cycle anew with another provocation.”

He also voiced caution toward the Moon administration’s possible attempts to thaw inter-Korean tensions with “concessions,” such as scaling back of the allies’ joint military exercises or the reopening of the Kaesong industrial park, which was shut down in 2016 in response to North Korea’s nuclear and rocket test.

“The Trump administration will certainly want to know what we expect to receive from Pyongyang should we start making concessions regarding military exercises or should Seoul wish to provide economic support to the Kim regime,” he said.

In the interview, the scholar stressed the importance of Moon and Trump presenting a “united front” against North Korea at the summit, as the death of US college student and former North Korean prisoner Otto Warmbier last week fueled the voices of hard-liners within the US.

In order to achieve this, Moon and Trump should devote their efforts to coming up with “basic strategic approaches,” not a detailed game plan, and differences over specifics should be delegated to subordinates for future consideration, the scholar suggested.

“The most contentious issues should not be decided at a first summit but shifted to lower levels for bilateral negotiation. More important than the specific tactics is a renewed, top-level commitment to forge a common North Korea policy with both engagement and security dimensions.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (