Former USFK chiefs push for Thaad in Korea
WASHINGTON - Former commanders from the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) attempted to persuade the leader of the National Assembly of the necessity to place an advanced missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula, a source familiar with the discussions told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday, in what appears to be intensifying pressure from Washington over its deployment.
According to the source, the possible U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, better known as Thaad, was a part of a discussion when National Assembly Speaker Chung Ui-hwa met with former commanders of the U.S. Forces Korea on March 6 during his recent trip to the United States. Ahn Ho-young, the Korean ambassador to the United States, also attended the meeting.
John Tilelli, who served as the USFK commander from 1996 to 1999, was vocal in promoting Thaad’s effectiveness.
The United States has spent decades improving the accuracy of its missile defense regime, Tilelli was quoted by the source as telling Chung, and Korea would have to spend an enormous amount of money and effort to develop its own missile defense system.
He added that North Korea will increase its stockpile of missiles and improve its technologies as the South attempts to build its own system.
Thaad is an American missile defense program designed to shoot down missiles using a hit-to-kill approach. Beijing and Moscow have both protested against the deployment of a Thaad battery to Korea, as it comes with a radar system designed to detect, track and identify ballistic missile threats at long distances and at very high altitudes, including space. The 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) radar can put China and Russia in range.
Denying that there have been consultations about the deployment with Washington, Seoul has said it will build its own shield, the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD). Differently from Thaad, it focuses on a terminal-phase, low-altitude missile defense.
According to the source, Tilelli tried to dismiss speculation that United States is attempting to place a Thaad battery in Korea to spy on Chinese troops. Stressing that the system is purely for defensive purposes, he cited that American troops in Korea had no means to defend Seoul from the North’s missile threats when the Taepodong-I missile was fired in 1998, when he was USFK commander.
Taepodong-1 is an intermediate-range ballistic missile developed by the North. Pyongyang jolted the region in 1998 by firing the missile over Japan. After additional efforts, the North developed inter-continental ballistic missiles with a range of 10,000 kilometers following a successful launch in 2012.
Another former commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, Walter Sharp, also recommended that Korea accept Thaad’s deployment.
According to the source, Sharp expressed concern that Korea will have a vacuum in its deterrence capabilities against the North’s threats because completing the KAMD would take years. He then recommended that Korea join the U.S. missile defense system in the meantime.
Korean officials said earlier that the goal for now will be mid-2020.
Sharp also said it was necessary to create an opportunity to clear up misunderstanding among the Korean public about Thaad’s deployment, indicating that Washington will soon make the request official.
Sharp recently visited Korea and contacted foreign and security policy makers here.
The former military leaders’ remarks to the head of the Korean legislature and the Korean ambassador appeared to indicate that the issue will soon be discussed publicly between Washington and Seoul. The USFK made a rare admission on Thursday that it had conducted site surveys in Korea to deploy the missile system, but that there is no final decision yet.
The Blue House, the government and the ruling Saenuri Party will discuss Thaad’s possible deployment at a policy coordination meeting on Sunday. “The party made the proposal first and the Blue House and the government accepted it,” a senior Saenuri official said Friday. “Taking into account the diplomatic aftermath, the issue will be discussed thoroughly in a closed-door session.”
Separately, the Saenuri Party will also address the issue at an assembly of its lawmakers at the end of March.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, however, criticized the ruling party’s push on the Park Geun-hye administration.
“The Blue House already said no, but the ruling party is making a unilateral push,” said Rep. Jun Byung-hun. “This is a voluntary tribute and an excessive kindness [to Washington].”
BY CHAE BYUNG-GUN, SER MYO-JA [email@example.com]