Korea coming around to Thaad idea

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Korea coming around to Thaad idea

With a new top defense chief in place, Seoul may be edging closer to deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad), the U.S. advanced antiballistic missile system.

New Minister of National Defense Han Min-koo said in an interview on Sunday with public broadcaster KBS, “The U.S. Thaad, if deployed on the Korean Peninsula, will be helpful in controlling North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations and strengthening the security posture on the peninsula.”

Under former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, Korea had been adamant about sticking to its own missile defense and emphasized that Seoul had no intention of deploying the Thaad to the peninsula.

Han also gave a warning to Pyongyang in the interview, saying, “In the case [North Korea] carries out another provocation, there may be a situation where it will have to risk the survival of its system itself.”

A general and former Korean chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Han replaced Kim Kwan-jin as defense minister on June 30 after Kim was appointed national security adviser to President Park Geun-hye.

“If there is an official request from the U.S. to the South Korean government for cooperation [on the deployment of the Thaad to Korea], we will review it,” said Ministry of National Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok in a briefing yesterday. “Because this is an issue involving sovereignty, such a review is needed.”

Kim elaborated on Han’s interview: “The minister said that deployment of the Thaad to the U.S. Forces Korea will be helpful to South Korean security because the higher [a ballistic missile] flies, the quicker the speed it falls, so there is a higher chance of interception the higher the altitude.”

After media reports in May that the United States has conducted a site survey in South Korea for possible locations for a Thaad battery, the Defense Ministry scoffed at the idea and said it will stick with updating its Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system.

The KAMD, launched in 2006, incorporates South Korean missile defense radar with early warning data from U.S. satellites. Because it has a more limited scope than the Thaad, the Korean government is in the process of updating its missile interceptor system and other capacities.

During his confirmation hearing last month, Han told the National Assembly that he will push for an early updating of the KAMD system and the Kill Chain, a pre-emptive missile destruction system, amid growing North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Han spoke with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for the first time via phone on Saturday, and they agreed to strengthen the U.S. and Korea alliance, according to the Pentagon. They agreed to meet to talk in further detail about the alliance and the security situation in the near future, at which time the deployment of Thaad could be discussed.

One high-level government official told the JoongAng Ilbo, “In reality, just mediation process is left, and there is no objection from the [Korean] government on the deployment.”

Deployment of the U.S.-led Thaad in Korea could also be perceived as a threat to neighbors in the region including China and Russia.

China may be especially sensitive towards the AN/TPY-2, a high-resolution, rapidly deployable X-Band radar designed to detect, track and identify ballistic missile threats at long distances and at very high altitudes, including space, for the Thaad system. The mobile X-Band radar can scan the horizon for hostile missiles up to a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

But Defense Ministry spokesman Kim said yesterday, “That X-Band radar is known to have a scope of around 1,000 kilometers.

“If installed, its primary goal will be to detect ballistic missile launches from North Korea and should not be a big issue for China.”

“China has not officially referred to the Thaad system that could be deployed to the U.S. Forces Korea,” Kim added. “Even if the [Thaad] is deployed to the Korean Peninsula, it does not extend over the scope of the Korean Peninsula so should not impact China too much.”

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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