U.S. pressure mounts on missiles

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U.S. pressure mounts on missiles

The United States is pushing South Korea harder to adopt an advanced missile-defense system to counter the threat of North Korean missiles despite Seoul’s preference to develop its own missile-defense system.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the United States has conducted a site survey in South Korea for possible locations for a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery, quoting unidentified defense officials. The Journal said no final decision has been made to deploy the system.

Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, denied the report Thursday.

“Our Defense Ministry is not aware of the U.S. reviewing deployment of the Thaad system on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “The U.S. missile-defense system is a separate system from our Army’s KAMD [Korea Air and Missile Defense] system.”

Kim reaffirmed Seoul’s official position so far - that it doesn’t want to purchase the Thaad antiballistic missile system or another system called the Standard Missile 3, which are known to have a broader range and altitude to intercept short- or intermediate-range missiles from the North.

The widely held consensus is that the adoption of the leading systems would be a step toward integrating Korea’s defense into the U.S.-led missile defense architecture - a move that would upset both China and liberal-leaning locals who want moderate independence from the U.S. defense system. Last year, the United States deployed a Thaad battery to Guam in response to North Korean ballistic missile tests.

The Thaad system can intercept incoming ballistic missiles at an altitude of up to 150 kilometers (492,000 feet) and a range of 200 kilometers and the SM-3 can intercept them at an altitude of 160 kilometers and a range of 500 kilometers. The higher the altitude range, the more likely it is for intercepting missiles to hit enemy missiles.

The KAMD, launched in 2006, incorporates South Korean missile defense radar with early warning data from U.S. satellites. When a U.S. satellite detects missiles coming from North Korea, it signals a missile interceptor system here called the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) and other ship-based interceptors to shoot down the enemy missiles.

The Korean military plans to upgrade the PAC-2 missiles to PAC-3s, and spokesman Kim said the Army is currently in the process of purchasing PAC-3 missiles while indigenously developing a long-range surface-to-air missile (L-SAM) that will intercept missiles at an altitude of 50 to 60 kilometers by 2022.

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council on Wednesday, “We’re encouraging our allies and partners to acquire their own missile defenses and to strengthen regional missile defense cooperation that will result in better performance than individual countries acting alone.”

Winnefeld named North Korea as the top U.S. ballistic missile threat, followed by Iran.

“This is a very politically sensitive topic for several of our regional allies,” he said, “but progress in this area would only increase our confidence in the face of persistent North Korean provocations.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed last week the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that said, “The secretary of defense shall conduct an assessment to identify opportunities for increasing missile defense cooperation among the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea.”

The United States also seeks an information-sharing agreement with East Asian allies Japan and South Korea to supplement a missile-defense system to combat the threat of a nuclear-capable North Korea.

The three-day Asia Security Summit, also called the Shangri-La Dialogue, kicked off yesterday in Singapore where U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to hold talks today with Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera on coordinating sharing of military intelligence.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, expressed Beijing’s opposition to the deployment of the U.S.-led Thaad shield to South Korea.

“China’s position on the missile defense system is consistent and clear,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang Qin told reporters. “We believe that the deployment of a missile defense system in this region works against regional stability and strategic balance. We hope that the U.S. can take into full consideration the legitimate concerns.”

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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