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International relations

Moon reshaping South Korea's military relations with US

New president vows to regain control of his country's armed forces

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South Korea's newly elected president, Moon Jae-In, speaks during a press conference at the Blue House in Seoul on May 10.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to know why his Ministry of National Defense failed to inform him of four additional launchers being brought into the country for the controversial U.S. THAAD anti-missile system.

A report from the ministry made no mention of the additional launchers, triggering Moon's ire and subsequent probe.

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system -- operated by the U.S. military -- was installed by Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, to shield the country against a possible North Korean missile attack.

The order launching the probe, issued by Moon on May 30, appeared abrupt but reflects Moon's view on the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea over the past 11 years.

Launcher for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, deployed in South Korea   © Yonhap/Kyodo

According to findings of the probe released on June 5, a lieutenant general in charge at the ministry had issued instructions for dropping any mention of the four THAAD launchers from the report.

This is anathema to Moon, who campaigned on a platform of government transparency, criticizing the Park administration as a "closed room." Still, it is extremely unusual for Moon or any other president to disclose a potentially embarrassing issue such as this and announce any pertinent investigation at a press conference.

Moon's motives

Observers have speculated that Moon may be trying to distract public attention away from the misdeeds of previous government leaders. Or that his move may be a gambit to pave the way for drastic military reform.

But a closer look at what Moon wants to accomplish during his five-year term reveals different possible motives.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, was an aide to former President Roh Moo-hyun. Moon hopes to pursue the policy of military independence that Roh initiated.   © courtesy of Moon's camp

Moon said in a May 31 speech that South Korea should try to become a stronger maritime nation, a reference to his intent to sharply increase spending on the country's navy. Moon has made no secret of his desire to become militarily independent of the U.S. as soon as possible, and a stronger navy would help further this goal.

During the Korean War, South Korea ceded authority over its military to the U.S. The country has yet to get it back.

Under the present framework, should the U.S. and South Korea agree on a danger to the country requiring a military response, some 630,000 South Korean troops would be placed under U.S. command.

Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun initially pledged to regain control of the military. In 2007, he forged an agreement with the U.S. to have the country take command of the armed forces in April 2012.

But when Lee Myung-back became president in 2008, the transfer was pushed back to December 2015 out of concern for South Korea's military capability. It was postponed indefinitely under the Park administration.

Moon witnessed the 2007 accord as an aide to Roh, and during his presidential campaign said he would accomplish "all dreams" that escaped Roh.

Full control

Moon wants South Korea to have its own Korea Air and Missile Defense system instead of depending on the U.S. system. He has also said that South Korea should maintain its own fleet of nuclear submarines.

Although Moon ordered a probe into the additional THAAD launchers, he is not demanding that the U.S. remove the radar and two launchers that were initially installed. Analysts say that Moon's order is the first step toward establishing South Korea's own national defense, while sending a not-so-subtle message that the president is not bound by the same subservience to the U.S. that shackled his predecessors.

Letting the U.S., China and North Korea -- as well as public opinion -- direct South Korean diplomacy involves risks.

On May 31, U.S Senate member Richard Durbin was informed of Moon's investigation while in South Korea. He asked the president for an explanation. Moon replied that he would decide what to do after assessing the environmental impact of THAAD and after deliberating with Parliament. The president asked the U.S. to understand his decision, stressing that his order was a domestic issue; not one intended to reverse past decisions or signal a drastic change in relations.

Durbin emphasized that THAAD is aimed at defending not only the U.S. forces in South Korea, but also the country and its people. The senator told Moon that if South Korea does not want THAAD, the U.S. will use the $923 million spent on its deployment for other purposes, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Jeff Davis, chief spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, told reporters on May 30 that deployment of THAAD was progressing in a transparent manner. Denying any problem regarding Washington's provision of information to Seoul, Davis noted that there was no change in the deployment plan under the Moon administration.

South Korea observers pointed out that a tug of war is starting in the Moon administration, pitting a group of former diplomats who want to maintain the status quo versus liberal presidential aides who prioritize reconciliation with North Korea.

The U.S. government is taking a wait-and-see stance on the current struggle, said a diplomatic source in Seoul. At the same time, Washington is wary of South Korea's new reformist government.

Moon will meet U.S. President Donald Trump for the first time in late June.

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