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Taking things slowly

May 12,2017
Now that South Korea has a new president, it is time to address the conflict over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system. President Moon Jae-in took the most reserved position on the deployment among presidential candidates in the May 9 election. His stance is relatively closer to China’s than that of the other candidates.

But that’s not a key reason for the resolution of the friction between Seoul and Beijing. The real reason can be found in our growing expectations for a breakthrough in the deadlock with the launch of a new South Korean government after a critical leadership vacuum following the ouster of President Park Geun-hye.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is sending positive signals. Earlier, Xi expressed his condolences after the deaths of South Korean kindergarten students in a tunnel accident in Shandong province before ordering local officials to do their best to deal with the accident.

In Thursday’s telephone conversation with Moon, Xi expressed the hope that the new South Korean government respects China’s “serious concerns” so that heathy relations can be enjoyed down the road. “Serious concerns” refer to Beijing’s worries about security since the deployment of the missile defense system in South Korea.

The choices facing the Moon government over the Thaad battery are three: withdrawal of the battery; a “normalization” of the pace of the deployment; and minimization of the conflict after the deployment. Above all, the first option of sending the battery back to the U.S. is not easy because it could shake the very foundations of the Korea-U.S. alliance amid ever-deepening military threats from North Korea. China also understands this dilemma of ours. In order to find realistic solutions for this Gordian Knot, the new South Korean administration need not give Beijing the impression that it is hurrying to deploy the Thaad system. That could be a gesture to allow Beijing to save face.

The Moon administration must send a special presidential emissary to Beijing as soon as possible. Even though that is not guaranteed to succeed, it nevertheless can demonstrate the new president’s sincere approach to the issue. Based on a trust to be built slowly yet steadily between the two leaders, they may be able to reach agreement on the tricky issue in a meeting at the G-20 Summit in Germany in July.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 12, Page 34