U.S. shows hardware, downplays Thaad issue

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U.S. shows hardware, downplays Thaad issue

South Korean officials had a rare chance to observe a U.S. Air Force test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the LGM-30G Minuteman III, from a California base last week, according to a Ministry of National Defense official Monday, as the United States pledged all efforts to protect the Korean Peninsula.

Yoo Jeh-seung, South Korea’s deputy defense minister for policy, kicked off a week-long trip to California last Wednesday to attend the annual discussion-based tabletop exercise (TTX) to bolster Seoul and Washington’s combined deterrence capabilities against Pyongyang.

The Minuteman test at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Thursday was the second conducted by the United States in February. This followed North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 7 and subsequent long-range missile launch on Feb. 6.

The launch of the strategic weapon system is considered a reminder to Pyongyang of Washington’s intercontinental ballistic missile power. The Minuteman III rockets, produced by Boeing, date back to 1970 and have a range of about 6,000 miles.

“In order to deter and respond to North Korea’s nuclear, weapons of mass destruction and missile threats, we have agreed to utilize efforts in every category,” the Defense Ministry said, “including South Korea’s conventional capabilities and the United States’ extended deterrence assets.”

“This is an exercise that took place five times since 2011, held mainly in Seoul or Washington, but this year was held at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California,” a defense official said in reference to the TTX. “This was in part a show of force displaying Washington’s extended nuclear umbrella to the Korean Peninsula and its attack abilities against North Korea.”

During the exercise, the United States sent a B-52 bomber to the Air Force base and showed its various strategic assets to the Korean delegation. The U.S. delegation was led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark.

The base is equipped with a ground-based interceptor, or GBI, which is part of a ground-based anti-ballistic missile system capable of intercepting incoming ballistic missile warheads that could reach the U.S. mainland. It could destroy targets in outer space at a maximum altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles).

“The GBI is a method of interception in order to neutralize North Korean threats to the mainland with an intercontinental ballistic missile,” a Defense Ministry official said.

“The weapons shown to the Korean delegation are symbolic of Washington’s intention to carry out its defense pledge to South Korea.”

But there were no updates on the issue of deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on the Korean Peninsula.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense was initially set to sign a “terms of reference” agreement to launch a joint working group to negotiate the terms of the antiballistic missile system’s placement here on Feb. 23, but delayed sealing the deal at the last minute that day.

Yoo made the trip to California without signing the agreement.

Washington, following Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, also on Feb. 23, has downplayed the urgency of the placement of the Thaad system in South Korea.

South Korea has avoided committing itself to the deployment of a Thaad battery, but made a joint announcement with the United States on Feb. 7, following Pyongyang’s long-range missile launch, that it would officially begin negotiations on the placement of an antiballistic missile defense system here. Wu Dawei, during a luncheon on Monday with Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam in Seoul, expressed his opposition to deployment of the Thaad system.

“He emphasized considerably that China values South Korea and China’s strategic cooperative partnership,” a Korean foreign affairs official said. “In that context, he repeated China’s basic stance on the Thaad deployment issue. We repeated our position.”

China has consistently expressed strong opposition to deployment of the Thaad battery, saying it poses a threat to its national security interests.

Both China and Russia worry about a radar system that can scan the horizon for hostile missiles up to a maximum of 2,000 kilometers.

BY SARAH KIM, JEONG YONG-SOO [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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