Seoul faces tight spot if U.S. deploys missiles

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Seoul faces tight spot if U.S. deploys missiles

With the new Pentagon chief’s signal that Washington plans to consult with its allies on the placement of intermediate-range missiles in Asia, Seoul is again put in a difficult position, concerned that its relations with Beijing and Pyongyang could be complicated if South Korea is chosen as the deployment site.

However, the Korean Ministry of National Defense said on Monday that it has not yet held any official discussions with the United States on the placement of intermediate-range missiles in Korea, nor is it considering such deployment at the moment.

Ahead of a visit to Seoul this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked by reporters Saturday if the Pentagon was considering deploying ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia, to which he responded, “Yes. I would like to. But let’s be clear, I’m talking about conventional weapons.”

Washington was previously unable to pursue ground-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers because of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an arms control pact with Russia dating back to 1987, which the United States withdrew from last Friday.

“Right now, we don’t have plans to build nuclear-tipped INF-range weapons,” said Esper. As to the timeline, he said, “I would prefer months … But these things tend to take longer than you expect.”

The move is expected to prompt protests by Russia, China and North Korea, and analysts fear the start of a new arms race. Experts have pointed out that the first U.S. intermediate missile deployments are likely to counter China, rather than Russia.

But Esper told reporters, “I don’t see an arms race happening. I do see us taking proactive measures to develop the capability that we need for both the European theater and certainly this theater, the Indo-Pacom theater,” referring to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. He added that Washington needs to “develop defensive capabilities” to “deal with the Russian threat of cruise missiles wherever they may appear.”

South Korea has previously been put in the difficult position of having to choose between the U.S. and China, strategic rivals who are already engaged in an escalating trade war.

If Washington follows through on its possible consideration of deploying new intermediate-range missiles in Korea, Seoul may find itself in another tough spot, similar to when the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system was installed in the nation. China strongly protested the deployment of the U.S.-led Thaad antimissile system, eventually placed in Seongju, North Gyeongsang, in 2017. Seoul and Washington said the Thaad system was defensive in order to help deter the North Korean missile threat, but Beijing saw it as a threat to its national security interests. China in turn carried out economic retaliatory measures targeting Korean businesses and tourism, though bilateral relations have since recovered.

When asked if Washington had requested such deployment, Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson of the Korean Defense Ministry, said in a briefing in Seoul, “There is no change in our government’s basic position on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There has been no official discussions with the United States on the introduction of intermediate-range missiles, nor any internal review on the matter, and have no plans to do so.”

She added that the matter also is not included on the agenda of issues to be discussed in the upcoming defense ministerial talks in Seoul.

After succeeding James Mattis as U.S. defense secretary on July 23, Esper is on his first trip to the Asia-Pacific region which takes him to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and Korea.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo will hold talks with Esper Friday in Seoul. Many tough issues are expected to be on the agenda, including the bilateral defense cost sharing deal, North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests and the diplomatic and trade row between Korea and Japan, which could impact intelligence-sharing between Seoul and Tokyo.

On whether the deployment of intermediate-range missiles could be considered to be directed at China, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press conference on Sunday in Australia, “When we employ these systems around the world with our friends and allies, we do so with their consent, we do so with respect to their sovereignty.” He added that Washington will make decisions based on good decisions and “mutual benefit to each of the countries that work on those particular sets of systems.”

Esper also took part in the joint press conference with Pompeo and their Australian counterparts in Sydney after an annual meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries and described the exit from the INF treaty Friday as “a result of Russian noncompliance” over many years.

“We now are free, if you will, to develop that range of weapons ? 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers ? that have not been available to us from a ground-based deterrent posture,” Esper said, while stressing they will not be “nuclear” weapons.

Esper said being able to “design and develop, test, and eventually deploy systems, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in the Asia-Pacific or elsewhere, gives us and continues that deterrent posture” in order “to deter conflict in any region in which we deploy them in consultation with our allies and partners.”

During the so-called two-plus-two talks, Esper said that the United States and Australia agreed on “maritime enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea,” which could be seen as Washington’s move to continue to strengthen sanctions on Pyongyang and crack down on illegal transshipment. They also agreed to cooperate together for the “support of a safe, prosperous, free and open Indo-Pacific region,” referring to the Trump administration’s strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region, seen as a policy in part to contain China.

Esper also stressed Washington’s proposed initiative in the Strait of Hormuz, between the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, is to “promote the principle of freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce through all waterways” and to prevent “provocative actions by Iran” that might lead to miscalculation and conflict.

Pompeo during the press conference stressed the freedom of navigation in that region, adding, “It’s very important that every country that has an interest in that region and has goods and services that flow, energy that flows into places like Japan and Korea, that they participate in a way that protects the interests of their own economies.”

Pompeo on Friday held trilateral talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and their Japanese counterpart Taro Kono on Friday on the sidelines of a regional security forum in Bangkok but ultimately failed to patch things up amid the escalating diplomatic spat between Seoul and Tokyo.

The diplomatic row between Korea and Japan has also become a trade and security matter which could impact U.S. visions of trilateral cooperation in the region.

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