Gov’t concludes Thaad is best option for Korea
After months of study, source says, there was ‘no other option’
The South Korean government has concluded that an advanced but controversial U.S.-built anti-ballistic missile defense system is the most effective way to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats based on a months-long review, a top Park Geun-hye administration official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday.
“The Ministry of National Defense and the military have long conducted independent studies on how to deter the North’s missile threats including Thaad,” said the official, referring to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system developed in the United States. “The Blue House and the administration also conducted technological effectivity reviews.
“Since it is a reality that we have no other option than Thaad, we concluded that it will significantly augment national security and defense,” he said.
“The National Security Office and the office of the senior presidential secretary for foreign and security affairs were briefed by civilian and military experts in February about the North’s current status on missile developments and the means to deter them,” the source said. “In order to make a government policy on this controversial issue, we conducted substantial studies and reviews.”
The controversy surrounding Thaad started last year after Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, recommended Thaad for Korea. A Thaad battery, if deployed here, is intended to defend the South from possible nuclear and missile threats by North Korea and intercept them. It is designed to shoot down missiles closer to their point of origin than South Korea’s current missile defense system is capable of.
Because a Thaad battery comes with a radar system that can reach more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), both China and Russia say it is against their security interests and may be used as a method of surveillance against them. Aside from the radar issue, analysts say, China doesn’t want a more powerfully equipped ally of the United States as its neighbor.
According to the government official, the Park administration started the reviews after the controversy began last year. “Isn’t it obvious that the government had to review the situation in the aftermath of the controversy?” another official told the JoongAng Ilbo.
But the cost of an entire unit, which is composed of a radar system, six launchers and more than 48 missiles, is more than 2 trillion won ($1.82 billion), the source said, and the Korean military has postponed making a decision on the purchase due to the steep price tag.
During a National Assembly audit of the government last October, Defense Minister Han Min-koo said the country needs Thaad for national defense and security. He, however, altered his stance in February and said the government needs “strategic ambiguity,” and that the military has no intention of purchasing it.
Korean officials’ admission to the JoongAng Ilbo about the Park administration’s conclusion came amid intensifying pressure from Washington and ahead of Park’s trip to the United States next month. The United States is contemplating the option of permanently stationing a Thaad battery in Korea, a senior Washington official said Tuesday.
“Although we’re considering the permanent stationing of a Thaad unit on the Korean Peninsula, we have not made a final decision and we’ve had no formal consultations with the Republic of Korea on a potential Thaad deployment,” Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said during a seminar hosted by the Institute for Corean-American Studies in Washington.
“However, let me be clear on a couple of points. Thaad is a purely defensive system that would improve our ability to intercept short- and medium-range missiles from North Korea. It does not and cannot impact broader strategic stability with Russia or China.”
He also said China is trying to create a “wedge in the U.S. alliance system in the region” by protesting the deployment.
A top U.S. military official also stressed Tuesday the importance of placing the missile defense system in the region, although North Korea is still years away from completing and deploying a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability.
Pyongyang claimed earlier this month that it has successfully test-fired a ballistic missile from a new submarine and leader Kim Jong-un witnessed the test in person, offering Washington yet one more excuse to beef up its missile defense in the Pacific region.
At a seminar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld said North Korea is “many years” away from developing the capability, which will eventually present a “hard-to-detect” danger to Japan and South Korea as well as American troops stationed there.
“This only reinforces the importance of regional ballistic missile defense,” he said.
“Of course, we are interested in the potential for using this system to augment the defense of this important ally, including our own troops who are there to help defend the [South] from attack from the North. It’s a good system. It will not pose a threat to any other nation in the region,” he said.
Winnefeld said the two countries have not started formal negotiations on a possible Thaad deployment and the United States is “respectful of our host nation’s concerns.”
“So, I’ll leave it to the diplomats and the negotiators and the like, but I just want to emphasize one more time, we have not opened up any kind of discussion formally with South Korea on this particular topic,” Winnefeld said. “When it’s ripe I’m sure we’ll get into that, but we’re approaching this very cautiously because we have such great respect for our partners.”
The remarks by Rose and Winnefeld were the latest in the intensifying pressure from Washington. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for the first time in public, talked about the deployment of Thaad system in Korea during a visit to the Yongsan Garrison in Seoul.
On Tuesday, General Scaparrotti also reiterated the importance of the Thaad deployment. During a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he said Seoul and Washington are individually reviewing the deployment issue and that they will “eventually” be discuss it.
Seoul and Washington have maintained the official position that no formal consultation has ever taken place.
Despite a myriad of concerns, including who will pay for it and whether it will work against North Korean missiles, some conservative leaders particularly those from the ruling Saenuri Party demanded that discussions should take place on the issue. Some say it should be at the top of the agenda when President Park visits Washington next month.
The Blue House said Wednesday that the United States has not officially informed its stance to Korea.
“I understand that discussions are still ongoing in the United States and no decision is made yet,” Min Kyung-wook, presidential spokesman, said. “If there is a request, we will consider its military effectiveness and national security interest and make our decision.”
Meanwhile, North Korea said Wednesday that it has succeeded in building nuclear weapons small enough to be placed on missiles.
“It has been a long time since we began miniaturizing and diversifying our means of nuclear strike,” the National Defense Commission, chaired by the North’s young ruler Kim Jong-un, said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
“We have also reached the stage where the highest accuracy rate is guaranteed not only for short- and medium-range missiles but long-range missiles as well,” it said. “We don’t hide this fact.”
BY SHIN YONG-HO, JEONG YONG-SOO AND SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]