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(News Focus) S. Korea-China crisis to deepen as THAAD deployment kickstarts

2017/03/07 17:33

SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- The early start of the installation of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea will deepen a diplomatic crisis between Seoul and Beijing, further complicating coordinated efforts to curb the North Korea's nuclear ambitions, analysts said Tuesday.

The United States began moving the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea with the first elements of the anti-missile system arriving here on Monday, according to military officials from the two countries.

Seoul and Washington are seeking to install a THAAD battery here as early as June to counter North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats despite China's strong opposition. A military official said that the system could be operational as early as April.

South Korea did not notify China of its plan to start the THAAD installment in advance, according to a government source.

China has already vehemently opposed the THAAD deployment, claiming that it would hurt Beijing's strategic security interests.

China's foreign ministry expressed its explicit opposition to the THAAD installment on Tuesday, vowing to take necessary measures to defend the country's security interests.

Beijing reportedly wanted the THAAD issue to be handled under South Korea's incoming administration as it believes there is wiggle room with a potentially liberal government.

South Korea's Constitutional Court is widely expected to hand down its ruling over whether to unseat or reinstate impeached President Park Geun-hye this week.

The allies appeared to speed up the deployment before the next administration takes office due to the possibility that South Korea could hold a presidential election earlier than expected.

China has already taken what appeared to be retaliatory measures against South Korea at various levels in an expression of its anger.

South Korean pop stars and entertainers have been barred from appearing on Chinese TV programs since October. China's state tourism agency instructed major travel agencies in Beijing to suspend tour programs to South Korea.

South Korean retail giant Lotte Group is bearing a heavy blow in China with almost two dozen retail outlets forced to be shut down temporarily as China cited fire safety reasons.

In February, Lotte clinched a land-swap deal with the government, paving the way for its golf course in the country's southern Seongju country to be used as a site for the THAAD deployment.

"The latest spat gave us a chance to think about whether South Korea's belief about China's role in reining in North Korea is viable," said Choi Kang, vice president at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"We had no idea that China would have such a tough reaction against the THAAD move. South Korea is standing at a crossroad in making a strategic choice."

   China is North Korea's last-remaining ally and key supplier of food and energy.

It has condemned North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, but Beijing is reluctant to use its influence over Pyongyang for fears that pushing the regime too hard could result in instability in the North and hurt Chinese national interests.

South Korea said it will step up its response to China's retaliatory move on the occasion of the start of the THAAD deployment.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se earlier said that a set of economic actions taken by China against South Korea could be "in breach of the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the bilateral free trade agreement between South Korea and China."

   The government and the ruling party agreed earlier in the day to actively consider lodging a complaint with the WTO over China's retaliatory steps against the THAAD deployment.

"The government plans to consider crafting multi-faced measures (against China's move) while making efforts to minimize damage facing South Korean firms," Cho June-hyuck, a foreign ministry spokesman, told a regular press briefing.

He said that the ministry plans to deal with this issue in accordance with international law.

"We are in close consultation with relevant government agencies to review legal processes related to the WTO and the bilateral free trade deal," the spokesman said.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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