SEOUL - The U.S. and South Korea said Friday they are ready to deploy an advanced missile defense system in the South to cope with growing threats from Pyongyang.
Seoul and Washington launched formal talks on deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, after North Korea conducted a nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch earlier this year. Beijing and Moscow say THAAD deployment could help U.S. radars spot missiles in their countries.
The system fires projectiles that smash into enemy missiles high in their arc. Both China and Russia earlier described the proposed deployment as a bid to flex U.S. military muscle in the region.
In a statement, the American and South Korean defense ministries said the deployment will be a “defense measure to ensure the security of the ROK and its people,” referring to the Republic of Korea.
China on Friday condemned the plan, saying the deployment will “seriously damage” regional security in Northeast Asia.
The Japanese government welcomed it.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda said Japan supports the decision, adding that deployment of the system will contribute to regional peace and stability, reported by Kyodo News.
“Further cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea will benefit peace and stability in the region and we support the decision,” it quoted Hagiuda as saying.
Later Friday, South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Yoo Jeh-seung told a nationally televised news conference that Seoul and Washington will quickly deploy the system because North Korea’s growing weapons capabilities pose a big threat to the region.
He said the two countries are close to determining the best military location for THAAD while also satisfying environmental, health and safety standards.
At the same news conference, Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the commanding general of the U.S. Eighth Army in South Korea, said the North’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction requires that the allies make sure they can defend themselves, and that THAAD is critical to their defensive strategy.
Separately, a senior Japanese Defense Ministry official told Kyodo that radars connected to the THAAD system will enable early detection of North Korean missiles, adding that this will be beneficial to defense cooperation between Tokyo and Washington.
Worries about North Korea grew last month when, after a string of failures, it finally sent a new mid-range ballistic missile more than 1,400 km high. Analysts say the high-altitude flight of the Musudan missile means that North Korea has made progress in its push to be able to strike U.S. forces throughout the region.
The Musudan’s potential 3,500-km range puts much of Asia and the Pacific within reach.
North Korea is also trying to develop a long-range nuclear missile that can reach the continental U.S., but South Korean defense officials say Pyongyang does not yet possess such a weapon. Some believe, however, that the North does have the ability to mount nuclear warheads on shorter range missiles.
THAAD is also a sore spot between Washington and Pyongyang, which is a traditional ally of China.
Beijing in February agreed to the toughest U.N. sanctions yet to punish the North for its weapons development, and has vowed to implement them fully. But Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated Beijing’s worries over the THAAD deployment when he met with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington in late March.
On Friday, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing swiftly criticized the move. “China expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute objection to this,” the ministry said in a statement posted on its website.
“Refrain from taking actions that complicate the region’s situation and do not do things that harm China’s strategic security interests,” the statement said.
China said the missile defense system’s deployment will not help bring about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and is not conducive to peace in the region. The ministry said the move will “seriously damage” the security interests and strategic balance of the region.
North Korea has warned of a nuclear war in the region and has threatened to strengthen its armed forces if the missile deployment happens.
The deployment decision also comes after North Korea said Thursday that U.S. sanctions on leader Kim Jong Un and other top officials for human rights abuses is tantamount to declaring war.
North Korea has already been sanctioned heavily because of its nuclear weapons program. However, Wednesday’s action by the Obama administration was the first time Kim has been personally targeted, and the first time that any North Korean official has been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in connection with reports of rights abuses.
The United States stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea. China assisted North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, while American-led U.N. troops fought alongside South Korea.
Meanwhile, Friday’s announcement tried to defuse concern among Seoul’s neighbors. In their statement, the two sides said the system would only target potential attacks from North Korea.
“When the THAAD system is deployed to the Korean Peninsula, it will be focused solely on North Korean nuclear and missile threats and would not be directed toward any third party nations,” it said. “The THAAD deployment will contribute to a layered missile defense that will enhance the alliance’s existing missile defense capabilities against North Korean missile threats.”
Many South Koreans worry that China, the South’s biggest trading partner, will take economic retaliatory measures.