A controversial Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery has arrived in Korea from the U.S. sooner than expected in a bid to preempt a change of heart by the next government here.
The arrival of the battery and handover of the necessary land in southern Korea practically ensures the completion of the deployment before the next election, even if President Park Geun-hye is removed from office next week.
The Defense Ministry on Tuesday said work to deploy the THAAD battery "has begun" and Korea and the U.S. will finish installing it "at the earliest possible date."
So far two mobile missile launchers with eight interceptors each have been transported by C-17 transport plane from Fort Bliss, Texas to Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek. They are now at a U.S. military base.
Normally a THAAD consists of six launchers and at least 48 interceptor missiles, a powerful AN/TPY-2 radar that is the main reason China is against the deployment here, and control and communications units plus a generator operated by around 200 personnel.
The U.S. military said the THAAD deployment is not related to massive joint military exercises currently underway. The battery was expected between June and July, but North Korea's launch of a new ballistic missile is believed to have played a major role in speeding up the deployment.
The new missile, dubbed Pukguksong-2, is powered by a solid-fuel engine, which vastly shortens launch preparation time compared to liquid-fuel-powered missiles that must be refueled shortly before launch and take longer to set up.
One U.S. military source said, "The early deployment of the THAAD battery was decided several weeks ago, but both sides kept the schedule a secret."
One South Korean military source said, "We looked into the prospect of speeding up the deployment considering internal and external circumstances, including the rapid advancement of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile technology." But the military source downplayed suspicions that the two allies want to make the deployment an established fact before the next presidential election, saying the decision was "unrelated to politics."
The Constitutional Court is presently deliberating the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and is expected to arrive at a final ruling in the next few days. If the court upholds her impeachment, Korea must hold presidential elections within two months.
One intelligence source said, "The U.S. believes that the THAAD battery is essential to dealing with the North Korean missile threat and it would now be extremely difficult for the next president to scrap the deployment." And a former Defense Ministry official said, "The THAAD deployment plan could be changed if an opposition candidate becomes president. Korea and the U.S. probably wanted to avoid making the THAAD deployment a political hot potato in the upcoming elections."
The plan has already drawn intense opposition from China amid signs that Beijing is retaliating with economic chicanery. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Tuesday, "All the consequences entailed from that will be borne by the U.S." and Korea.
This handout photo from the U.S. Forces Korea on Tuesday shows the first elements of the U.S.-built Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense arriving at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul on Monday.