Conflict between South Korea and China over US missile shield complicates reconciliation

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is seen in Cheongju, South Korea on June 13, 2017. Picture taken on June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

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SEOUL, Aug 11 (Reuters) – China and South Korea clashed on Thursday over a U.S. missile defense shield, threatening to undermine efforts by a new government in Seoul to resolve long-standing security differences.

The disagreement over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system emerged after a smooth first visit to China by South Korea’s foreign minister this week.

China, which argues that THAAD’s powerful radar can peer into its airspace, restricted trade and cultural imports after Seoul announced its deployment in 2016, a major blow to relations.

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South Korea’s presidential office said Thursday that the system deployed in the country is a means of self-defense, according to a brief transcript, after Beijing requested Seoul not to deploy additional batteries and not restrict the use of existing ones.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, who sees the system as key to countering North Korean missiles, has vowed to renege on previous government promises not to increase THAAD deployments, participate in the US-led Global Missile Defense Initiative or form a trilateral military alliance that includes Japan.

On the campaign trail, the conservative Yun 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 existing, US-owned and operated system.

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South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met on Tuesday to explore ways to reopen denuclearization talks with North Korea and resume cultural exports such as K-pop music and movies to China. read more

A Wang spokesman said Wednesday that the two “agreed to take each other’s legitimate concerns seriously, continue to handle them prudently, and manage them properly, ensuring that this does not become a stumbling block for the solid and stable development of bilateral relations.”

A Chinese spokesman told a briefing that the THAAD deployment in South Korea “undermines China’s strategic defense interests”.

However, Park told Wang that Seoul would not be bound by the 2017 agreement, known as the “Three Numbers,” because it was not a formal pledge or agreement, South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

China also insists that South Korea adhere to “a restriction” – which limits the use of existing THAAD batteries. Seoul has never acknowledged that element, but on Wednesday, Wang’s spokesman insisted that China emphasizes the status quo of “three numbers and one restraint.”

During Park’s visit to the eastern port city of Qingdao, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times praised Yun for showing “independent diplomacy and China’s rationality” without meeting visiting US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi face-to-face.

But the newspaper warned that the THAAD issue is “a major hidden danger that cannot be avoided in China-South Korea relations”.

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Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Josh Smith and William Mallard

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