By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea will hold off on installing remaining components of a U.S. anti-missile defense system until it completes an assessment of the system's impact on the environment, the country's presidential office said on Wednesday.
The move could mean substantial delays in a full deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea, as the environmental review may take well over a year according to a senior official at the presidential Blue House.
South Korea said last week that four more launchers had been introduced for the anti-missile defense system, months after the controversial battery was deployed in March with just two of its maximum load of six launchers.
The additional launchers had been brought in to the deployment site in the southeastern region of Seongju without being reported to the new government or to the public, new President Moon Jae-in's office said last week, asking for a probe into why it was not informed of the move by South Korea's defense ministry.
The four launchers have yet to be installed and made operational.
"It doesn't make sense to withdraw the two initial launchers which had already been deployed and installed, but additional installation will be decided after the environmental impact assessment is over," the administration official told reporters on Wednesday.
"Whether we must urgently move forward with additional installment by ignoring legal transparency and due procedure is a question."
The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment. U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin Corp is the lead contractor for the THAAD system.
During his successful election campaign, Moon had pledged to review the previous South Korean government's decision to deploy THAAD, saying that the deployment was rushed without assessing its environmental impact or seeking parliamentary approval.
Moon's decision to order an investigation into the THAAD deployment came amid signs of easing tensions between South Korea and China, which is North Korea's sole major diplomatic ally.
The decision to deploy the system in South Korea was made by Moon's conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and thrown from office in a corruption scandal that engulfed South Korea's business and political elite.
Moon took office on May 10 without a transition period because a snap presidential election was held just two months after Park was ousted. He inherited her defense minister, along with the rest of the cabinet, and has yet to name his own.
Moon has said his order for the probe at the defense ministry was purely a domestic measure and was not aimed at stopping the deployment of THAAD, which has drawn angry protests from China.
North Korea has conducted three ballistic missile tests since Moon took office, maintaining its accelerated pace of missile and nuclear-related activities since the beginning of last year in defiance of U.N. sanctions and U.S. pressure.
(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Bill Rigby)