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THAAD Program in Jeopardy After South Korean President Park Resigns

South Korea’s promise to host American missile defense technology may fall apart after President Park Geun-hye’s resignation and possible impeachment.

In July, Park’s Saenuri party agreed to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD). This system is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. South Korea’s willingness to host THAAD is due in large part to North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated weapons program, which may include a miniaturized nuclear warhead that the nation tested in September.

But Park’s alleged involvement in an influence-peddling scandal is threatening to derail that. On Tuesday she announced she was relinquishing her powers, and the National Assembly (South Korean parliament) may hold impeachment hearings later this week. If she is removed from office, elections could be moved from December 2017 to mid-year.

“If THAAD isn’t deployed during Park’s now-possibly-shortened term, her likely liberal successor might just kill it, making it another potential casualty of this bizarre Choi Soon-sil scandal,” said Sean King, senior vice president at research firm Park Strategies.

Both China and Russia were angered by Park’s acceptance of THAAD. They say that its deployment on the Korean Peninsula threatens their national security interests.

South Korea’s main opposition parties, the People’s Party and Minjoo Party, are opposed to THAAD because they don’t believe it will effectively protect against the North and will damage relations with China.

The opposition parties’ stance has public support, at least from the people of the southern town of Seongju, which was chosen as the THAAD deployment site. Citizens of that town have rallied against THAAD because they are concerned that their homes could become military targets.

“The opposition has long believed that a confrontational stance toward the North is counterproductive, and needs to be balanced with greater engagement,” said Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific program at the University of California San Diego.

Opposition politicians also don’t wish to anger China, the world’s second largest economy and South Korea’s largest trading partner, Haggard added.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense said THAAD deployment would continue regardless of South Korea’s political upheavals, Yonhap News reported.

THAAD won’t be so easily blocked by internal forces, either. A large part of the National Assembly and Korea’s defense establishment still firmly support THAAD. The opposition also may not want to endanger relations with the U.S.

“There is certainly a chance that blocking deployment of THAAD will be a long-run objective, or creating conditions under which it would not need to be deployed,” said Haggard. “But an incoming president and opposition party will need to think about its broader relationship with the U.S. and might be cautious at the outset.”

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