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Moon’s Thaad conundrum

June 03,2017
Seoul-Washington ties are showing subtly unsettled signs ahead of President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington later this month, his first overseas trip after taking office last month. Many analysts in Seoul and Washington are predicting poor chemistry between U.S. President Donald Trump and Korean President Moon Jae-in, who champions more engagement of North Korea and challenges the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in Korea. Thaad became an even thornier issue after Moon learned he was kept in the dark about the delivery and installation of four Thaad launchers.

Comments from a visiting U.S. senator added fuel fire to the fire. According to some local reports, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, said Washington could use the $923 million of U.S. taxpayers’ money — the cost of the Thaad system — elsewhere if Korea does not want it. Durbin met with Moon as well as the defense minister and the head of the National Security Office.

In an interview, Durbin said he believed the new Korean president was objecting mainly because the decision was made by the previous government. He added he could not understand why Koreans are opposed to missile shields when North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats are escalating.

Soon after liberal President Roh Moo-hyun took office in 2003, he had to answer Washington’s demand for Korean troops to aid its operations in Iraq. Roh and his party opposed joining the U.S. invasion, but Seoul’s refusal could have jeopardized the long-standing Korea-U.S. security alliance. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threatened to pull U.S troops out of Korea.

Roh compromised by keeping the dispatch to a minimum as peace-keeping and reconstruction foot soldiers. Moon, who was Roh’s chief of staff, said the country had to send soldiers if that was necessary for the national interest. Moon should use that experience to solve his conundrum over Thaad. Compared to sending troops to Iraq, which put the lives of young Korean soldiers at risk, the dispute over Thaad isn’t that big.

But it was a poor move for Chung Eui-young, chief of the National Security Office in the presidential office, to say deployment of Thaad should be delayed during his visit to Washington. The government’s relaxing of a ban on civilian contacts and aid for North Korea is also out of tune with the rest of the world. Seoul can hardly win trust from allies if it acts entirely on its own.

Moon must talk out disagreements and misunderstandings when he meets Trump later this month. Seoul should patiently convince Washington of the need to renew humanitarian aid and civic exchanges with the North. Communication is key with such an unpredictable leader in Washington.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 3, Page 26