(ATTN: ADDS value of golf course in 3rd para, details in 8-9 paras)
SEOUL, Feb. 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's military signed a formal land swap deal with Lotte Group on Tuesday, paving the way for the installation of an advanced U.S. missile defense system this year as scheduled, the defense ministry said.
The Ministry of National Defense and Lotte Group have agreed to exchange properties to complete the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system "within this year," the ministry said in a statement.
Lotte has agreed to hand over its golf course worth 89 billion won (US$79 million) in the southeastern rural county of Seongju in exchange for a state-owned military property east of Seoul.
"We will make the system operational as quickly as possible to better safeguard the well-being of our nation and the lives of citizens against North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threats," a ministry official said.
The missile defense system is widely expected to be installed between May and July. Pyongyang's continued provocations apparently provided a strong impetus for Seoul and Washington to agree in July last year to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea by the end of 2017.
In early November, two months after the North's fifth nuclear test, U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks said a THAAD battery will "come in the next eight to 10 months."
The signing of the land swap deal is likely to allow the government to speed up all the processes to finish the THAAD deployment in the coming months.
As the core infrastructure such as electricity, water, sewage and access roads are already in place for the golf course, it won't be necessary to build additional infrastructure facilities, the official said.
"We expect an environmental impact assessment will be wrapped up as early as May. The construction of the site for THAAD will begin after the evaluation," he said.
Pushing forward the deployment is important because the next presidential election could take place in May if the Constitutional Court decides to oust President Park Geun-hye next month. Under South Korean law the country must hold a presidential election within 60 days of the president being removed or stepping down. If Park is reinstated, the next presidential election will take place in December with the new chief executive being sworn into office in late February 2018.
Lotte, South Korea's fifth-largest conglomerate, has declined to comment due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Group affiliates like Lotte Duty Free Shop and Lotte Department Store that are heavily invested in China could expect hard times down the line.
Some 90 Lotte affiliates posted a combined 92 trillion won in sales last year, with sales in China reaching about 3 trillion won, according to a group spokeswoman.
China has explicitly opposed the THAAD installation in South Korea, claiming the system, particularly the powerful X-band radar, could be used against it.
On Monday when the board of a Lotte affiliate approved the swap deal, the Chinese government warned of additional retaliatory steps.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the country will take "necessary measures" to safeguard its security interests and the U.S. and South Korea will have to bear all the consequences.
Seoul and Washington have repeatedly stressed that the system is purely defensive and aimed only at deterring North Korean threats.
Last year Pyongyang detonated two nuclear devices and test-fired 24 ballistic missiles and long-range rockets ignoring warnings by the United Nations. Such provocations have added momentum to the two allies' plan to station THAAD.
THAAD, a core part of America's multilayered missile defense program, is designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles at altitudes of 40 to 150 km during the terminal phase of flight after detecting the missiles with a land-based radar system.
A THAAD battery consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 48 interceptors (eight per launcher), a fire control and communications unit, and an AN/TPY-2 radar.
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