Korea and U.S. differ over Thaad parley

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Korea and U.S. differ over Thaad parley

SINGAPORE - South Korea and the United States appeared to be at loggerheads on Friday over the deployment of an advanced missile defense system on the peninsula, particularly over whether the two would discuss the issue at an upcoming talk between their defense chiefs.

Washington has indicated that the two have neared the end of discussion on deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery in Korea, a stance that contrasts that of Seoul, which signaled it would take more time for the two to reach a conclusion on the long-standing issue, which unnerves China.

On a flight to Singapore to partake in the Asia Security Summit, which runs from Friday until Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he would meet with his South Korean counterpart Han Min-koo today to discuss the issue of Thaad installment, according to reports by foreign media.

But Seoul’s Defense Ministry said it “has no plan” to discuss the issue with the U.S. defense chief at a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit, or Shangri-La Dialogue.

The difference of perspective shown by the two allies just a day before the scheduled meeting between top defense officials is something of a rarity, as is Seoul’s decision to contain speculation by issuing a statement directly denying Carter’s comment.

The Thaad issue requires Seoul to walk a tightrope since China, its biggest trade partner, strongly opposes it because it suspects that the system’s 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) surveillance capability will allow Washington to monitor its airspace activity.

An official at the Defense Ministry in Seoul said the two sides have engaged in discussions since Feb. 7 and were still talking over the issue.

“We are not at a point yet in the talks at which we can say when it will be concluded,” the official said on the condition of anonymity. “While this matter is being dealt with by the Defense Ministry, it is eventually up to the president to decide.”

Seoul’s lukewarm response to the matter raised speculation that it was distancing itself from the issue in light of China’s persistent protest against Thaad. It is possible Secretary Carter made the remark out of dissatisfaction with the slow pace Seoul has exhibited in discussing it.

“There’s no change in the government’s stance that we need Thaad to fend off Pyongyang’s threats,” said a government official, who asked not to be named. “But we’re winning international cooperation in imposing sanctions on the North, so we have to be careful about China.”

China provides a lifeline to North Korea that keeps it afloat despite international sanctions. Experts say cooperation from Beijing is essential to put tangible pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Facing questions over the different perspective, Defense Minister Han told reporters in Singapore on Friday that the United States and South Korea were on the same page for Thaad. He said the two sides “share understanding over procedures” to be examined before reaching the conclusion.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]
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