China and South Korea clashed on Thursday over a US missile defense shield, threatening to undermine efforts by the new government in Seoul to overcome longstanding security differences.
The disagreement over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system installed in South Korea emerged after an apparently smooth first visit to China by South Korea's foreign minister this week.
China, contending that the THAAD's powerful radar could peer into its airspace, curbed trade and cultural imports after Seoul announced its deployment in 2016, dealing a major blow to relations.
A senior official in South Korea's presidential office told reporters on Thursday that THAAD is a means of self-defense and can never be subject to negotiations, after China demanded that South Korea not deploy any more batteries and limit the use of existing ones.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, seeing the system as key to countering North Korean missiles, has vowed to abandon the previous government's promises not to increase THAAD deployments, and not to participate in a US-led global missile shield or create a trilateral military alliance involving Japan.
On the campaign trail, the conservative Yoon pledged to buy another THAAD battery, but since taking office in May, his government has focused on what officials call “normalizing” the operation of the existing, US-owned and operated system.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, meeting on Tuesday, explored ways to reopen denuclearization negotiations with North Korea and resume cultural exports, such as K-pop music and movies, to China.
A Wang spokesman said on Wednesday the two had “agreed to take each other's legitimate concerns seriously and continue to prudently handle and properly manage this issue to make sure it does not become a stumbling block to the sound and steady growth of bilateral relations”.
The Chinese spokesman told a briefing the THAAD deployment in South Korea “undermines China's strategic security interest”.
Park, however, told Wang that Seoul would not abide by the 2017 agreement, called the “Three Nos”, as it is not a formal pledge or agreement, South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement.
Washington insisted on Thursday that THAAD is “a prudent and limited self-defense capability” for South Korea and a “purely defensive measure” against the North's missile threat.
“Criticism or pressure on the RoK (South Korea) to abandon its self defense is inappropriate,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on a briefing call.
China also insists that South Korea abide by “one restriction” - limiting the use of existing THAAD batteries. South Korea has never acknowledged that element, but on Wednesday, Wang's spokesman emphasized that China attaches importance to the position of “three Nos and one restriction”.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said the policy on the THAAD would not change because of China's opposition, and the system's radar could not be used against China.
“The current battery is not structured to play any role in US defenses but placed in a location where it can only defend the Korean peninsula,” he told reporters.
During Park's visit to the eastern port city of Qingdao, the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times praised Yoon for showing “independent diplomacy and rationality toward China” by not meeting face to face with US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited last week.
But the newspaper warned that the THAAD issue was “a major hidden danger that cannot be avoided in China-South Korea ties”.