Washington softens tone on Thaad deployment

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Washington softens tone on Thaad deployment

The U.S. military has toned down its argument for the need to deploy an advanced antimissile defense unit in South Korea, hinting at a possible change in Washington’s position following the latest diplomatic consultation between the United States and China.

Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command, said Thursday at the Pentagon that Seoul and Washington’s decision to start discussions on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system on the peninsula did not necessarily mean the two countries have agreed to its placement.

A Thaad missile defense unit comes with a powerful radar system that can cover more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), and Korea’s neighbors, particularly China, have expressed concerns that the radar could be used as a possible method of surveillance against them.

Following North Korea’s nuclear test in January and long-range missile launch earlier this month, South Korea and the United States said they would officially begin discussions on the U.S. Forces Korea’s placement of the Thaad system here.

However, on Tuesday, both governments abruptly delayed signing of a “terms of reference” agreement that would outline Thaad talks amid repeated complaints from China.

Asked what Washington would do if Beijing continues to protest, Harris stressed that neither South Korea nor the United States had agreed to deploy the Thaad system.

“What we have agreed to do is consult about it, to think about it, talk about it and discuss it,” he said. “So, that - the decision to discuss it is not necessarily a decision to do it, not yet. So, we’re having the discussions now, and we’ll see how they turn out.”

Beijing’s interference in the Thaad discussion is “preposterous,” he added, emphasizing that the system poses no threat to China. “But it’s there in order to defend the Americans that are in Korea, their families and the Koreans,” Harris said. “And if China wanted to exert a lot of influence on somebody to prevent Thaad from being considered going into Korea, then they should exert that influence on North Korea.”

The tone of his remarks was tactfully changed from his earlier position.

“I find it preposterous that China would try to wedge itself between South Korea and the United States for a missile defense system designed to defend Americans and Koreans on the peninsula,” Harris said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Before Congress, he and Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, both stressed that they wanted Thaad to be deployed in South Korea, despite China’s opposition.

Yet, the changed mood in Washington appears to be related to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to the United States.

Following talks with Wang on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the only reason Thaad consultations were taking place was because of the recent provocations by North Korea.

“We have made it very clear that we are not hungry or anxious or looking for an opportunity to be able to deploy Thaad,” Kerry said. “And we have said that if we can get to denuclearization, there’s no need to deploy Thaad.”

On Wednesday, the United States announced that it had agreed with China on a United Nations Security Council draft resolution that would impose tougher sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its latest nuclear and missile provocations. The following day, Admiral Harris issued his latest statement on the Thaad battery with a significantly muted tone.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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