U.S. official hints at talks over Thaad

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U.S. official hints at talks over Thaad

Despite Washington’s insistence that there have been no formal discussions with Seoul about the deployment of a U.S.-led anti-ballistic missile system on the Korea Peninsula, contradictory statements by a top American military official indicate otherwise.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said Thursday at a Senate hearing that discussions for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery on the Korean Peninsula were under way.

“We’ve been in discussions about the potential deployment of an additional Thaad battery - beyond the one that’s in Guam - but on the Korean Peninsula,” Locklear told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

His remarks were construed in Seoul as being the first time an American official has acknowledged in a formal setting that there have been talks about Thaad’s establishment in Korea, an issue that has been hotly debated, particularly in recent months.

Locklear’s statements are contrary to remarks by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last week during his trip to Seoul to hold talks with Defense Minister Han Min-koo, his Korean counterpart. “We are not at a point yet to determine where it might be suitably deployed in the future,” Carter said on April 10 in Seoul in regard to the Thaad battery.

Washington and Seoul have maintained that there have been no official discussions or decisions made on the placement of the advanced missile defense system in Korea.

The Thaad battery is intended to defend South Korea 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.

However, the placement of a Thaad battery here has been controversial, as it comes with a radar system that can reach more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). China and Russia have both opposed the deployment of the advanced missile defense system in Korea, voicing fears that it may lead to instability in the region.

Skeptics have also questioned whether the Thaad system, designed to intercept incoming missiles at high altitudes, would help better protect South Korea, which is already covered by the Korea Air and Missile Defense system, its low-tier missile shield. North Korea is not likely to attack South Korea with such high-altitude missiles.

Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, who also testified at the Senate hearing about the 2016 fiscal year defense budget, later clarified that there has been no formal discussion or decision between Korea and the United States on the matter.

He added that discussion indicated political and strategic factors that would be considered by the U.S. Department of Defense in making a decision on the matter.

Responding to China’s concerns on the Thaad issue, he added that it is a “decision for South Korea, having to do with the defense of their country, and from my perspective as a commander there, the defense of our troops.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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