By Jun Ji-hye
Moon Jae-in, a leading presidential hopeful, has expressed a cautious view on deploying a U.S. anti-missile battery here, saying the Park Geun-hye administration's decision in July last year was too "hasty and unilateral."
Moon said he believes the government should have first sought approval from the National Assembly before signing the deal with the United States. He said the next South Korean leader should seek renegotiations with Washington, if possible, in consideration of the protests from China and a division in the country over the deployment.
"As the agreement has already been reached between the allies, it is very complicated to discuss the issue again," he said in a book to be published today. The book, "A completely new nation — questions from the Republic of Korea and answers from Moon Jae-in," contains his future vision for the nation.
Moon's aides said there is a misunderstanding in the global media about his point of view on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
"Moon has been known as an opponent, but he actually doesn't have a clear yes or no," an aide told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. "He believes that the matter should be re-discussed between Seoul and Washington on condition that it does not hurt their strong alliance. That's because there has been a huge protest from China and confusion in Korean society."
In the book, Moon criticized Park for rushing into the deal despite mounting protests from local residents as well as from China, saying the issue should be handed over for the next government to reconsider.
Moon, the former chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), made the comments after Park was impeached by the National Assembly, Dec. 9, in a high-profile corruption and influence-peddling scandal.
His position has been construed as signaling that he is opposed to THAAD and would retract the deployment decision if elected president.
Regarding this, Moon explained Sunday that his calls for handing the issue over to the next government was not to reverse the deployment decision, but to make a "rational decision" after having various debates including diplomatic consultations.
"I am demanding neither the enforcement nor the withdrawal of the deployment plan," he told reporters. "I am just calling for the issue to be debated by the next government to come up with a rational decision."
Moon added that he did not think the Seoul-Washington agreement on the deployment of the battery could be canceled easily.
But he immediately faced criticism from his political rivals for "changing his words."
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, also a presidential hopeful of the DPK, said Moon should stop changing his words based on political calculations.
"It is true that the U.S. is the nation's biggest ally, but a politician should be able to say no if that is the right thing to do," he said on Facebook. "A politician who only reads the countenance of the U.S. is unqualified to protect our national interest."
Park made it clear that he is opposed to THAAD, citing that the battery does not protect Seoul and its surrounding areas because of its range, and that the deployment will only worsen Seoul-Beijing relations, which will negatively affect the country's economy.
Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung, another DPK presidential hopeful, also said Moon's flip-flop on the issue, which has a profound effect on the nation, is only confusing liberal voters.
"Moon should explain why he changed his position from against to for," he said.
In response, an aide to Moon, who asked not to be named, said that Moon has not changed his position and that he has never placed emphasis on the deployment or the withdrawal.
"Moon has just called for a more deliberate process on THAAD," he said.
In the book, Moon noted that the Park government failed to sufficiently review whether the THAAD deployment would result in the nation joining the U.S.-led missile defense system (MD) and whether the deployment would provoke protests from China.
"The utility of THAAD has yet to be proven even in the U.S.," he said. "I would say the only effects from the deployment could be reducing people's anxiety here and pressuring North Korea to some extent."
Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Defense said Monday that the military's acquisition of a golf course operated by Lotte Group for the THAAD placement may be delayed due to administrative reasons.
"The administrative process is underway to secure the Lotte Skyhill Country Club in Seongju in exchange for a piece of state-owned military land," said spokesman Moon Sang-gyun. "But the swap deal, originally scheduled to be completed by January, may be pushed back a bit due to the need to follow a set process by Lotte."
Sources noted that Lotte is delaying holding a board of directors meeting to sign off on the deal due to concerns over possible retaliatory actions against the company by China.
Beijing has taken various retaliatory actions against the deployment decision — popular South Korean entertainers have been banned from performing in China since late last year. Beijing also abruptly stopped South Korean airlines from operating chartered flights between the two countries beginning this month.