Clashes between South Korea and China over US missile shield, complicating reconciliation

High Altitude Defensive Interceptor (THAAD) missiles in Seongju, South Korea, June 13, 2017. Photo taken on June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

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SEOUL (Reuters) – China and South Korea clashed on Thursday over a U.S. missile defense shield, threatening to undermine efforts by the new government in Seoul to overcome longstanding security differences.

The row over the High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system installed in South Korea emerged after an apparently smooth first visit to China by the South Korean foreign minister this week.

China claimed THAAD’s powerful radar could scan its airspace, and restricted trade and cultural imports after Seoul announced its deployment in 2016, dealing a major blow to relations.

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A senior official in South Korea’s presidential office told reporters Thursday that the THAAD system is a self-defense system and cannot be subject to negotiations, after China demanded South Korea not deploy any more batteries and limit the use of existing batteries.

President Yoon Seok-yeol, who sees the system as a key to countering North Korea’s missiles, has vowed to abandon previous government promises not to further THAAD proliferation, and not to participate in a US-led global missile shield or create a tripartite military alliance that includes Japan.

During the election campaign, conservative Yoon pledged to buy another THAAD battery, but since taking office in May, his government has focused on what officials call “normalizing” the operation of the current US-owned and operated system.

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During Tuesday’s meeting, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi discussed ways to reopen denuclearization negotiations with North Korea and resume cultural exports, such as K-pop music and movies, to China. Read more

A spokesman for Wang said Wednesday that the two “agreed to take each other’s legitimate concerns seriously and continue to handle this issue wisely and properly manage it to ensure that it does not become a stumbling block to the healthy and steady growth of bilateral relations.”

The Chinese spokesperson told a news briefing that the THAAD deployment in South Korea “undermines China’s strategic security interests.”

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Park told Wang that Seoul will not abide by the 2017 agreement, called the “Three Regulations,” because it is not a formal pledge or agreement.

China also insists that South Korea adhere to a “single restriction” – restricting the use of existing THAAD batteries. South Korea has never recognized the element, but a spokesman for Wang stressed on Wednesday that China attaches importance to the “three regulations, one restriction” situation.

Defense Minister Lee Jong Sub said the policy regarding THAAD would not change due to China’s opposition, and the system’s radar could not be used against China.

“The current battery is not structured to play any role in the defenses of the United States, but it is positioned in a place where it can only defend the Korean peninsula,” he told reporters.

During Park’s visit to the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, the Communist Party-owned Global Times praised Yun for showing “independent and rational diplomacy toward China” by not meeting US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited last week.

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But the newspaper warned that the THAAD issue was a “major and unavoidable hidden danger in relations between China and South Korea.”

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Coverage from Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Su Hyang Choi in Seoul and Yu Lun Tian in Beijing. Editing by Josh Smith and William Mallard

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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