- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2017

American forces tracking the North Korean threat in the Pacific remain on a high state of alert, as Pentagon officials wait to see the fallout from the election of a new president in South Korea who talks of better ties with North Korea and has questioned recent moves by the U.S. to bolster its defenses against Pyongyang’s nuclear and conventional arsenal.

Despite hopes by newly minted liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in to tamp down tensions between the U.S., its allies and North Korea, the American commanders in the region are staying the course on efforts to deter North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions.

Defense Department officials say they are not considering options to retailor or adjust the deployment of a battery of long-range, anti-ballistic missile weapons, dubbed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, to South Korea just days before Mr. Moon’s election Tuesday.

“I will urgently try to solve the security crisis,” Mr. Moon, a onetime human rights lawyer and supporter of the “Sunshine Policy” of detente with the North, said Wednesday in a speech before the South Korean parliament. “If needed, I will fly straight to Washington. I will go to Beijing and Tokyo and, if the conditions are right, to Pyongyang also,” Reuters reported.

Since his election, Mr. Moon has offered to broker talks between China and the U.S. on the THAAD deployment, which proved unpopular with many of the younger voters who broke heavily for Mr. Moon. President Trump inflamed opinion in Seoul by briefly suggesting South Korea should pay the estimated $1 billion to install THAAD.

The Pentagon argues the anti-ballistic missile system is critical to defending the peninsula, as well as the Japanese coast, from North Korea’s expanding long-range missile capability.

Beijing, however, has long opposed the weapon’s deployment so close to China’s borders. Chinese leaders claim the system could spy on its missile activity and could be used to take out its own ballistic missile sites, along with targets inside North Korea, and have been putting heavy pressure on Seoul to reverse the decision.

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated President Moon on his win, saying in a statement that Beijing was willing to work on “the development of Sino-South Korea relations” in security and diplomatic matters, state run media outlet Xinhua News reported.

President Trump on Wednesday spoke by phone to congratulate Mr. Moon on his victory, also promising to improve relations between Seoul and Washington, and inviting Mr. Moon to Washington. But Mr. Moon’s offer to broker a deal on the U.S. missile system in South Korea could be seen as a back-channel effort to get the deployment — which he opposed during the campaign — off South Korean soil.

Meanwhile, Beijing announced that it conducted its own missile tests near the Korean Peninsula, which many regional observers say was carried out in direct response to the THAAD deployment. Reports claim the missiles fired were DF-26 class intermediate-range missiles designed to take out warships. The test took place as the USS Carl Vinson strike group continues to make its way toward international waters off the North Korean coast.

Beijing’s message with the missile test was clear. “China’s position on the issue of THAAD is clear and consistent. We hope South Korea can pay high attention to China’s concerns and handle the relevant issue in a proper way,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday.

His comments come a day after Mr. Trump’s pick to be the No. 2 official at the State Department assured Congress that U.S.-Sino relations were on a positive track.

“There has been some positive feedback from the Chinese [on North Korea], giving us hope” that Beijing will be able to curb the nuclear ambitions of its ally in Pyongyang, John Sullivan, a former George W. Bush-era appointee, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday.

“We will use all the legal and policy [measures] that we have to turn the dial” on Chinese support for North Korea, Mr. Sullivan said, adding that military options also needed to be on that list.

North Korea has yet to comment on Mr. Moon’s election.

Pentagon stays on alert as new South Korea leader charts path

 

— Steve Miller and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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