Seoul and Beijing clash over Thaad deployment

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Seoul and Beijing clash over Thaad deployment

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U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, center, meets with Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, left, and South Korea’s Defense Minister Han Min-koo during their trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 15th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, or IISS, Asia Security Summit on Saturday, in Singapore. [AP/NEWSIS]

SINGAPORE - Top military officials in Seoul and Beijing experienced a rare moment of public conflict at the Asia Security Summit as the two governments scrambled to appeal to the global community on whether Korea needs a U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery.

Although conflict between South Korea and China over the Thaad issue has been running deep for some time now, hardly did the two sides disclose their conflicting perspectives as openly as they did over the weekend in front of dozens of defense ministers and hundreds of other influential government officials at the Shangri-La Hotel.

With growing missile threats from North Korea, Seoul has long favored the deployment of Thaad, which comes with a powerful radar system that can cover more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). Beijing and Moscow have adamantly opposed the idea from the start, asserting that the radar could be used as a possible means of surveillance against their governments.

Seoul and Washington officially launched working-level talks on the Thaad system in early March by signing a “term of reference” agreement.

Seoul has a “clear intention” to deploy Thaad on its territory, stressed South Korean National Defense Minister Han Min-koo on Saturday, answering a question from the crowd after giving a speech in the summit’s third plenary session.

Thaad’s deployment, said Han, is strictly in line with South Korea’s national security and interest, and together with Washington, it is reviewing where and when to install the system, as well as how much it will cost.

Thaad’s essence, he added, is how South Korea will be able to block a North Korean missile, at a time when Pyongyang’s capability of developing its nuclear bombs and missiles are growing more and more advanced.

A direct response to Han’s statements came a day later on Sunday during the summit’s fourth plenary session, when Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, said a Thaad deployment in Korea would “encroach” on regional security in the Asia-Pacific.

“As a soldier,” said Sun, “I know very well what Thaad means. The measure surpasses defense capabilities and it’s more than what’s necessary.”

Beijing, he underscored, opposes the deployment of Thaad.

Adding that China longs for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, Sun said his government was trying to solve Pyongyang’s nuclear issues through negotiation.

While it is unclear exactly what Han and Sun discussed during closed-door negotiations on Saturday on the sidelines of the summit, military sources hinted under the condition of anonymity that most of the 30-minute session was focused on Thaad.

Sun reportedly went as far as to say that Beijing opposes the deployment because it “runs counter” to China’s strategic interests in the region. Han was said to have replied that the system would be used as defensive weapon, and if necessary, Seoul can always demonstrate the relevant technology.

While Han also talked behind the curtains with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, military sources said the Thaad issue was not brought up and that they instead stuck to reinforcing their commitment to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2270, adopted in March after Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and a ballistic missile test in February.

Han later told reporters toward the end of the summit that this year’s convention was “meaningful” in that it enabled him to request that all representatives strengthen their sanctions against North Korea.

The Asia Security Summit, also known as the IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies) Shangri-La Dialogue, was held between Friday and Sunday.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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