SEOUL The signing of a contract which would secure the location of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea could be delayed, Seoul's defense ministry said on Monday.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system is due to be deployed on land which is now part of a golf course owned by the Lotte Group conglomerate in the Seongju region, southeast of South Korea's capital Seoul.
"The plan to go ahead with the exchange will be signed by mid-January, but there is a possibility it will be slightly delayed," South Korean defense ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a regular news briefing.
"Lotte needs to hold a meeting of the board of directors to approve the final assessment fee," Moon said. "We understand that the meeting has not happened yet, but will be held soon".
South Korea and the U.S. say the deployment of THAAD is designed to protect against North Korea's growing nuclear and ballistic capabilities.
But Beijing objects strongly to its use in South Korea, where it says THAAD's powerful radar could penetrate Chinese territory, leading to calls from some South Korea opposition leaders to delay or cancel its deployment.
Moon Jae-in, a former opposition leader who currently leads polls of presidential hopefuls, has said its deployment should wait until the next South Korean administration is in place.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is expected to run for president of South Korea and is currently polling second behind Moon in surveys of potential candidates, said on Sunday it is appropriate for THAAD to be deployed in the country, however.
South Korea has been gripped by a political crisis since lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in December to impeach President Park Geun-hye over an influence-peddling scandal. The motion is now with the Constitutional Court and will trigger an early presidential election if upheld.
The deployment of THAAD in rural Seongju has been met with protests from farmers concerned that the sophisticated missile defense system's advanced radar will damage local melon crops and make the small town a target of a North Korean attack.
(Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by Yun Hwan Chae; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)