The United States is considering deploying a THAAD missile defense battery to South Korea to better cope with threats from North Korea, a top American defense official confirmed Tuesday.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work also said that Washington and Seoul are in talks about the possible deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system.
“As you said, we are considering sending a THAAD to South Korea,” Work said in response to a question from Yonhap News Agency. He spoke at a forum organized by the Council on Foreign Relations on U.S policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. has already moved one THAAD battery to Guam “in response to North Korean provocations,” he said.
“We are considering very carefully whether or not to put a THAAD in South Korea. We’re doing site surveys. We’re working with the government of South Korea now to determine if that is the right thing to do,” he said.
The remark contrasts with what South Korean officials have insisted so far that the U.S. neither officially asked to deploy a THAAD system to South Korea nor did the two sides hold any discussions on the issue.
South Korea’s defense ministry reiterated the stance Wednesday, saying it “has not discussed nor is in discussions with the Pentagon regarding the deployment of a THAAD to U.S. Forces Korea.”
Work emphasized that it is very difficult to move a THAAD battery because of the work involved in setting up the complicated system in a new place. But once moved, such systems “become an important part of the regional defense,” he said.
“These batteries are strategic assets. Moving them is a very, very important national-level decision,” he said.
The THAAD deployment plan is a sensitive issue because it is seen as U.S. pressure on Seoul to buy a new THAAD system. It could also inflame tensions with China and Russia as they see the U.S. move as a threat to their interests.
Critics in South Korea have also claimed the planned deployment is part of a broader U.S. attempt to get the Asian ally to join its missile defense system. Seoul has said it won’t join the U.S. system but will instead develop its own.
“We’ve emphasized to both China and to Russia these are not strategic anti-ballistic missiles,” Work said. “They are essentially designed to address regional threats against both our allies, against U.S. territory. So we continue to work with the Russians and the Chinese to allay any concerns they have, but they both have indicated concerns.”