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Korea mulls over environmental survey of THAAD site

South Korea's military said Friday it will wait for an inter-agency decision on the implementation of a controversial alliance deal on the THAAD missile intercept system.

At issue is whether the Ministry of National Defense has abided by related rules and regulations, especially in connection with the environmental impact assessment of the site, which used to be a private golf course, in Seongju, some 300 km southeast of Seoul.

A THAAD interceptor launcher is deployed at a former golf course in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in this undated file photo. (Yonhap)
A THAAD interceptor launcher is deployed at a former golf course in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, in this undated file photo. (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in and his aides say no, while ministry officials maintain a low-key, wait-and-see attitude.

"The Office for Government Policy Coordination has formed an inter-agency task force (on the matter)," the ministry's spokesman Moon Sang-gyun said. "There will be discussions and review on appropriate ways for EIA."

It involves vice ministerial officials from defense, foreign, environmental and other relevant ministries. The inaugural meeting was held on Thursday.

He kept mum on details of what has happened in the THAAD deployment process, now virtually suspended.

"If we say anything (in public) about that, it may cause another round of misunderstanding and controversy," the official said.

According to Cheong Wa Dae, the ministry agreed last year to provide US Forces Korea with 700,000 square meters of land for THAAD under the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement.

The presidential office believes the allies should have conducted a preliminary environmental survey, a measure to take several months, before starting the installation of THAAD equipment.

The ministry also split the land provision process in an apparent bid to dodge strict environmental assessment regulations and facilitate the deployment, added Cheong Wa Dae.

In the first stage, a 328,779-square-meter area was handed over to USFK. Two rocket launchers, an advanced X-band radar and some other components are currently in operation there.

In case of military-related construction projects in the making, a "small and informal" environmental survey is possible for a site with the size of 330,000 square meters or less.

Cheong Wa Dae's position is that the THAAD zone is subject to an ordinary environmental assessment for its total size under South Korea's EIA Act.

The problem is that there's no mandatory regulation for the USFK.

On the use of facilities and areas in South Korea, the SOFA stipulates that "It's the duty of members of the US armed forces... to respect the law of the Republic of Korea."

It means room for flexibility in the USFK's environmental requirements, depending on negotiations between the USFK and South Korea's defense authorities which usually lack transparency in the eyes of those critical of South Korea's previous conservative administrations.

Moon, the country's new liberal president, wants to break the practice and advocates for transparency in alliance affairs. He said "domestic procedures" should be obeyed as well in addition to the consideration of the political and military aspects.

Cheong Wa Dae officials question whether the THAAD deployment is urgent enough to allow an exception to the rule of law, although they acknowledge the seriousness of North Korea's missile threats.

For now, however, they are not seeking to reverse the THAAD deal with the US itself. They know it's not a realistic option.

"As the THAAD site stretches over 700,000 square meters, a formal EIA is required, and it should proceed in accordance with domestic law," a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said. "But it does not mean the area is subject to a preliminary environmental assessment held before the acquisition of the land."

He reaffirmed that four extra THAAD launchers stored at a USFK base won't be installed until the end of the due process.

It remains unclear when the task force will come up with an alternative plan. (Yonhap)