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(3rd LD) S. Korea, U.S. agree to deploy THAAD defense system in Korea

2016/07/08 15:05

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 16-19)

SEOUL, July 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States have agreed to deploy a high-tech antiballistic-missile interception system in the Northeast Asian country to upgrade the allies' defense against North Korea's increasing nuclear and missile threats, the defense ministry said Friday.

The decision came after five months of negotiations between Seoul and Washington over whether to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, an advanced air defense shield that makes up the U.S.' mainland missile defense system.

The allies started the negotiations shortly after North Korea fired a long-range missile in early February a month after it conducted its fourth nuclear test the previous month.

"South Korea and the U.S. have made the joint decision to deploy the THAAD system with U.S. Forces Korea as part of a defensive action to guarantee the security of the Republic of Korea and our people from North Korea's nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats," the Ministry of National Defense's deputy minister for policy Yoo Jeh-seung said in a press conference.

The defense ministry's deputy minister for policy Yoo Jeh-seung (R) shakes hands with USFK Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal at a news conference in Seoul on July 8, 2016. The two allies agreed to deploy the THAAD defense system in South Korea. (Yonhap) The defense ministry's deputy minister for policy Yoo Jeh-seung (R) shakes hands with USFK Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal at a news conference in Seoul on July 8, 2016. The two allies agreed to deploy the THAAD defense system in South Korea. (Yonhap)

The deployment is also designed to secure the military power of the bilateral alliance, he said.

The allies' joint working group is currently in the final stages of proposing a site for the THAAD deployment to the countries' defense chiefs, Yoo said.

"South Korea and the U.S. are working closely together to deploy the THAAD system as soon as possible," according to the deputy minister.

When THAAD is deployed, it will not target countries other than North Korea and be exclusively used to deal with the communist country's nuclear and missile threats, Yoo said, brushing off China's protests raised over the deployment move.

"The deployment of THAAD will contribute to (the buildup of) a multi-layer missile defense and strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance's missile defense capabilities against North Korea's missile intimidation," the official also said.

Joining the announcement, USFK Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal said "Today's decision is a critical one in advancing the capabilities of the Republic of Korea and U.S. alliance as we work together to defend our alliance's military forces and people of South Korea from growing North Korean ballistic missile threats."

   "North Korea's continued pursuit of missiles and weapons of mass destruction ... require our alliance to ensure we retain abilities to defend ourselves in the face of these threats, Vandal said.

The allies plan to announce the site for deployment "within a couple of weeks," Yoo said. But the specific location will not be made public due to operational secrets, he added.

Currently, about four counties are being cited as possible deployment sites, including Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, where USFK's new headquarters is based; Wonju, a eastern city close to the inter-Korean border; and the southern town of Chilgok.

"The allies aim to be able to start actually operating THAAD in South Korea at least by the end of 2017, but we will make efforts to complete deployment before the target period," Yoo said.

Manufactured by U.S. weapons giant Lockheed Martin, the THAAD system comes with five components, mobile launchers, interceptor missiles, radar, a fire control unit and a battery support center. The chief operational control lies with USFK's top commander.

The defense shield is designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles at an altitude of 40 to 150 kilometers with the hit-to-kill technology. The THAAD missiles have no warheads but rely on their sheer kinetic energy to intercept an incoming missile.

The deployment could provide South Korea an additional layer of defense against missile attacks from North Korea on top of the country's Patriot interception system that can counter incoming missiles at a lower altitude.

North Korea currently has some 1,000 ballistic missiles with 85 percent posing a threat to South Korea, the defense ministry said.

The defense system's powerful X-Band radar component, however, has been a major source of China's unrelenting resistance to the deployment. Beijing has argued the radar can be used to closely spy on its military activities.

Immediately after the latest deployment, China's foreign ministry expressed "strong discontent and firm opposition," saying in a statement that the deployment would seriously impair the strategic interests of China and other countries, and tip the security balance in the Northeast Asian region.

Mindful of possible diplomatic rows with China, the South Korean official said the defense ministry informed China and Russia of the deployment decision one day ahead of the official announcement.

Locally, the deployment has triggered controversy over how militarily effective the system would be in intercepting North Korea's incoming missiles. The X-Band radar in particular has stirred up health concerns.

Amid some worries surrounding the deployment, potential candidate sites have expressed opposition to hosting the defense system.

Reflecting such opposition, the military officials here said South Korea and the U.S.' joint working group has verified the military effectiveness of the deployment of THAAD in South Korea through months of review.

"Both countries are committed to identifying a site where environmental, health and safety standards are met," they said.

pbr@yna.co.kr

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