Saenuri Party moves closer to backing Thaad

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Saenuri Party moves closer to backing Thaad

The Saenuri Party is edging closer to supporting the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery in South Korea as Chairman Kim Moo-sung endorsed the U.S.-led antiballistic missile shield in a parliamentary meeting on Monday.

In the party’s Supreme Council meeting at the National Assembly on Monday, Kim said that “the North’s fourth nuclear test has been an awakening that North Korea’s regime is a dangerous one, and in terms of defense, making the public aware of Thaad is a natural process.”

This was the first time the Saenuri chief expressed support for consideration of the placement of a Thaad battery in South Korea, a hot potato issue diplomatically because of opposition from China and Russia.

“Thaad is not for purposes of attack but is for defense purposes,” Kim said. “As much as North Korea’s nuclear program is lethal and an issue that puts our lives at stake, international interests are secondary.”

He added that North Korea should not be dealt with “in a passive manner.”

The installation of a Thaad battery in Korea has been controversial, particularly because it comes with a radar system that can detect threats more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away - far enough to reach China and Russia. Both countries complain it goes against their security interests.

Amid pressure from Washington for Seoul to officially start talks on deployment of the missile shield, Kim seems to be starting to build a consensus within his party on the issue.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense also said Monday that the Thaad system can be used in conjunction with a domestically developed missile defense system to enable several layers of protection.

“The U.S. Thaad and L-SAM [long-range surface-to-air missile] in development by our military are different systems with different ranges, so they are separate from each other,” Moon Sang-gyun, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a briefing on Monday. “If we can manage them in conjunction with one another in order to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat, it will be helpful to our security.”

In the past, the Korean government has pushed for development of the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system as Seoul’s alternative to Washington’s Thaad system to cope with increasing nuclear threats from the North.

The M-SAM (mid-range ground-to-air missile) and L-SAM in development and the PAC-2 (Patriot Advanced Capability-2) and PAC-3 missiles comprise KAMD.

Moon added that “Thaad is a means of responding to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat,” signifying the necessity of the system’s deployment here.

Thaad is designed to intercept missiles at an altitude of 40 to 150 kilometers, while the L-SAM is designed to intercept missiles at an altitude of 50 to 60 kilometers.

In theory, the L-SAM, which is scheduled to be deployed in the early 2020s, can intercept ballistic missiles during their descending phase.

Previously, the Korean government had insisted that KAMD would be sufficient to counter North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

When asked if negotiations between Washington and Seoul had begun, Moon, sticking to the official Korean government line, said, “There is talk within the U.S. government on the deployment of Thaad, but there has been no request to our government for discussion.” The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the United States could announce that the two countries are in negotiations on the deployment of Thaad soon.

Quoting a former U.S. official, the paper reported that “behind the scenes it looks like Thaad is close to a done deal,” adding that the Jan. 6 nuclear test helped focus the discussion.

Last month, President Park Geun-hye and Defense Minister Han Min-koo both supported the positive consideration of the placement of a Thaad battery in South Korea.

Issues that have not been raised yet include who will pay for the battery, where it will be placed, and who is responsible for operation and maintenance costs. There will also be an effect on diplomatic relations with China and Russia. A former defense acquisition official told the JoongAng Ilbo that “while one Thaad battery could be deployed by the U.S. Forces Korea, there is the likelihood that [Washington] could request Korea purchase additional ones.”

China is especially sensitive toward 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 for the Thaad system. The mobile X-Band radar can scan the horizon for hostile missiles up to a maximum range of 2,000 kilometers.

However, analysts have pointed out that the system deployed to South Korea can easily be restricted to cover a range of 600 kilometers.

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

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