China’s defense chief raises Thaad

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China’s defense chief raises Thaad

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Visiting Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, right, and South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo, left, inspect an honor guard on Wednesday on the compound of Korea’s Ministry of National Defense in Yongsan District, Seoul. [NEWSIS]

China’s top defense official expressed concerns about the possible U.S. deployment of an advanced antiballistic missile defense system in South Korea, a senior South Korean defense official said Wednesday.

South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo had a meeting with his visiting Chinese counterpart, Chang Wanquan, at the Ministry of National Defense in central Seoul in the afternoon. The two officials discussed a wide range of security issues involving the two countries, including North Korea’s nuclear weapons development.

During the meeting, Chang expressed China’s concerns about the possibility that the United States will deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery, better known as Thaad, in Korea, an official from the Defense Ministry said.

While refusing to elaborate on the details because of diplomatic sensitivities, the official said, “Minister Han reaffirmed that Seoul’s position remains unchanged that Washington neither made a decision on the deployment nor made a request to Seoul. He also said no discussions took place between Seoul and Washington on the issue.”

According to the source, Chang brought up the issue during the meeting. Although the issue was not an agenda item that the two countries had agreed to earlier, Seoul was prepared to address it if Chang raised the issue, the official said.

The deployment of a Thaad battery to Korea has been a sensitive issue because of China’s view of the antimissile system, designed to shoot down missiles using a hit-to-kill approach and equipped with a radar system that can cover more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). While Beijing has made numerous protests, it was the first time that the Chinese defense minister voiced his concerns to the South.

Both China and Russia have expressed opposition to the Thaad deployment in Korea, claiming it is against their security interests and may be used as a method of surveillance against them.

Beijing and Moscow may be especially sensitive to 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. This can put China and Russia in range.

Although Seoul has denied that there was a discussion with Washington on the issue, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said last year that the United States conducted site surveys and was working with the South to make a decision on the deployment. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, also said last year that he had proposed the deployment to counter growing North Korean threats.

During the ministerial talks, Han also made clear to Chang that South Korea will retaliate against any North Korean provocations, the Defense Ministry said. The two defense chiefs also agreed that the North’s nuclear arms programs must be ended through dialogue and cooperation.

Han and Chang agreed to follow-up measures to establish a hotline between the two countries’ defense ministries. The channel, if completed, will be Seoul’s third Defense Ministry hotline, following ones with the United States and Japan.

“Low-level talks will start next week for the hotline project,” said a South Korean official. “We want to open the channel before the end of this year.”

While economic and social exchanges between South Korea and China have grown rapidly over the recent decades, military talks between the two countries, which fought each other in the 1950-53 Korean War, are less frequent.

Chang is the third Chinese defense minister to visit South Korea. The last such visit was made in 2006. The two countries had their last defense ministerial talks in Beijing in 2011.

Chang’s trip signals an elevated level of cooperation, a senior South Korean Defense Ministry official said.

“Since he took the position in 2013, Chang decided to visit the South before going to the North,” the official said. “This is meaningful.”

In a reflection of the friendship between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two countries have stepped up efforts to widen their political cooperation. During a summit in July, Park and Xi agreed to bolster bilateral military ties.

Han and Chang also agreed that newly excavated remains of 68 Chinese soldiers who died during the Korean War will be sent to China in March. Last year, the South repatriated the remains of 437 soldiers to China.

They also discussed their cooperation in cybersecurity.

Following the defense ministerial talks, Chang visited the Blue House and met with President Park.

BY SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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