Thaad touted amid security worries on peninsula

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Thaad touted amid security worries on peninsula

The U.S. forces commander in the Pacific said in a Senate hearing on Thursday that he favored the deployment of the U.S.-led anti-ballistic missile system in Korea as a response to any potential missile launches by North Korea.

“I think the key is to be ready for all outcomes regarding North Korea from a position of strength,” said Adm. Harry Harris, who leads the U.S. Pacific Command, addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. “That’s why things like ballistic missile defense (BMD) are important, and we strengthen South Korea’s ability in their BMD systems.”

“I personally believe that Thaad on the peninsula is important as well,” he continued, referring to the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.

The Thaad battery is intended to defend South Korea from possible nuclear and missile threats by the North and intercept them. It is designed to shoot down missiles closer to their point of origin than Seoul’s current missile defense system.

“North Korea,” Harris emphasized, “is the greatest threat that I face in the Pacific as the Pacific commander.”

He further pointed to a North Korea that has nuclear weapons and is seeking the means to miniaturize them and deliver them intercontinentally, as well as one that possesses up to 30,000 artillery pieces in range of Seoul on top of several hundred thousand rockets, which he said could affect U.S. troops and South Korean citizens.

On Monday, Pyongyang announced its intention to fire a long-range missile, possibly within the next few weeks, to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling Workers’ Party on Oct. 10.

It said on Tuesday that the country’s plutonium and highly enriched uranium facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex had started normal operations and have improved the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities.

The placement of a Thaad battery on the Korean Peninsula has been a controversial issue linked to both regional security and diplomatic tensions, especially because it 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 could possibly be used as a method of surveillance against them.

However, both Seoul and Washington have maintained that there has been no “official” discussion on Thaad’s deployment. South Korean Minister of Defense Han Min-koo said last week that discussion on the Thaad system was not expected to take place in an upcoming bilateral security consultative meeting with the United States in mid-October.

But with the North’s continued provocations, there is a greater pretext for the Thaad to be deployed in Korea.

During the hearing on maritime strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, chaired by Senator John McCain of Arizona, Harris additionally expressed concern that “China’s influence on North Korea is waning.”

This point was also shared by David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, and other senators at the hearing.

“During the recent crisis related to the North Korea provocation on Aug. 4, it wasn’t clear to us whether China had a lot of contact with the North Koreans or were significantly able to influence them,” Shear said.

On Aug. 4, land mines planted by North Korea exploded inside the demilitarized zone in Paju, northern Gyeonggi, maiming two South Korean soldiers. “We’re going to be considering what extra pressure we can put on North Korea should they decide to conduct that missile launch,” Shear said, adding Washington will engage member-countries of the six-party talks.

The talks, which include the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the United States, were initially formed with the aim of convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions and resolve security concerns on the peninsula. “We put a great many sanctions on North Korea,” he said, “and further sanctions would be one possibility.”

The previous day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also warned of measures beyond economic sanctions.

Hwang Joon-kook, the South Korean special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs visited Washington this week amid concerns Pyongyang may launch a long-range missile or conduct another nuclear test in the coming weeks.

A high-ranking Korean foreign affairs official told reporters in Washington that North Korea “has a higher chance of conducting a long-range missile launch than another nuclear test.” Likewise, in Beijing, Korean Ambassador to China Kim Jang-soo pointed out, “North Korea will be able to launch a missile whenever it wants to.”

During an annual parliamentary audit of the Chinese Embassy on Thursday, he added that the North Korean regime could “already have decided to launch [a missile] and [simply be] watching the atmosphere, observing the response [internationally].”

Kim also said that additional construction at the Dongchang-ri launch site in North Pyongan Province, where the long-range missile could potentially be launched, is in its final stages, an analysis with which Beijing agreed.

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

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