The United States is determined to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea “as soon as possible,” according to remarks by Daniel Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia.
Russel’s remarks come as tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs are high following a fifth nuclear test earlier this month.
“Given the accelerating pace of North Korea’s missile tests, we intend to deploy on an accelerated basis. I would say as soon as possible,” Russel told the U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee for Asia.
The United States and South Korea agreed jointly to deploy the missile defense system earlier this summer. According to an understanding between the two governments, the first THAAD battery will be deployed in South Korea’s Seongju county.
The U.S.-South Korean decision to deploy THAAD has drawn China’s ire. Beijing has specifically expressed its concern that the advanced X-band radar systems accompanying THAAD could relay information about sensitive Chinese missile tests to the United States.
In the aftermath of the fifth North Korean nuclear test, however, U.S. and South Korean resolve to deploy the system appears to have only intensified.
Besides Chinese opposition, the decision to deploy THAAD was met with far from consensus support within South Korea. A Gallup poll conducted in August, before the fifth test, showed that 56 percent of South Koreans supported the deployment of the system while 31 percent opposed it, representing a slight increase in favorability from a July poll.
In the aftermath of the fifth test, however, reports indicate that the vocal opposition to THAAD has grown muted. Voice of America, for example, notes that opposition to THAAD “is weakening in South Korea’s National Assembly in the face of North Korea’s rapid advancement of it nuclear and ballistics [sic] missile capabilities.”
“In the aftermath of the fifth nuclear test of North Korea and the firing of the SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile], I have felt a little bit of change in the National Assembly towards THAAD deployment,” notes Chung Sye-kyun, the National Assembly speaker.
Recent North Korean missile tests, while impressing on the South Korean public the possible need for more advanced missile defense capabilities, has also drawn attention to some of THAAD’s shortcomings.
For example, the SLBM cited by Chung–the KN-11–would increase the possible angles at which North Korea could fire nuclear-tipped ballistic projectiles at South Korea, necessitating a second THAAD battery.
Moreover, Pyongyang’s launch of multiple extended range Scud-ER variant missiles during the Hangzhou G20 meeting in China highlights North Korea’s ability to launch multiple projectiles in rapid succession, potentially overwhelming U.S. and South Korean missile defenses.
Public support and U.S. determination aside, THAAD is beginning to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea on one hand and China on the other, complicating matters particularly as Washington and Beijing continue to wrangle over the issue of sanctions enforcement against Pyongyang.
To address the difficulties in U.S.-China difficulties, some experts have proposed that the United States agree to freeze ground-based interceptors at current levels to encourage Chinese cooperation on sanctions enforcement.