U.S. starts deploying missile shield in S. Korea
Response to North Korea’s missile tests begins a new nuclear arms race, China says in decrying move.
HONG KONG — The United States said Tuesday it had begun deploying an advanced and contentious missile defense system in South Korea, prompting China to warn of a new atomic arms race in a region increasingly on edge over North Korea’s drive to build a nuclear arsenal.
The U.S. announcement came a day after the simultaneous launch of four missiles by North Korea into waters off the Japanese coast, which Pyongyang said was a drill for striking U.S. bases in Japan. The feat, footage of which was broadcast on state television, raised concern about the North’s ability to overwhelm the new defense system being deployed.
Hours later, North Korea further unnerved the region by declaring it was blocking all Malaysians from leaving its soil, sharply escalating a dispute over last month’s assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur airport.
Malaysia has accused several North Korean citizens of using VX nerve agent to kill Kim Jong Nam in a case that has reminded the world of Pyongyang’s access to a stockpile of banned chemical weapons on top of its nuclear program — and its willingness to take extreme measures.
The flurry of developments heightened anxiety in Asia over signs that Pyongyang is closing in on its goal of developing an intercontinental missile that can deliver a nuclear payload to the United States — and what the new Trump administration might do to prevent it. And they came as the U.S. and South Korea participated in largescale military exercises that North Korea has condemned.
President Donald Trump’s national security deputies have discussed both the possibility of pre-emptive strikes that would almost certainly provoke an attack on South Korea and a reintroduction of nuclear weapons to the South. Intelligence officials say North Korea is already able to hit much of South Korea and Japan with nuclear-tipped missiles.
A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, denounced the U.S.’ decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, and vowed that Beijing would “take the necessary steps to safeguard our own security interests.”
“The consequences will be shouldered by the United States and South Korea,” Geng added, warning that the two countries should not “go further and further down the wrong road.”
The United States’ decision to deploy the missile technology brought new scrutiny to China’s policies toward North and South Korea and suggested that its attempts to please both countries in hopes of averting a crisis had fallen short.
“To put it bluntly using a common Chinese expression, it has wanted to have a foot in two boats,” said Deng Yuwen, a current affairs commentator in Beijing who has sharply criticized North Korea.
Yang Xiyu, a former senior Chinese official who once oversaw talks with North Korea, said China was worried that the deployment of the system would open the door to a broader U.S. network of anti-missile systems in the region, possibly in places like Japan and the Philippines, to counter China’s growing military as much as North Korea.
“China can see benefits only for a U.S. regional plan, not for South Korea’s national security interest,” he said.
The developments come as South Korea is consumed by turmoil over the impeachment of President Park Geunhye, whose administration agreed to the THAAD deployment. But with the president facing possible removal from office over a corruption scandal, the fate of the system has been in doubt. Its accelerated deployment could make it harder, if not impossible, for her successor to head off its installation.
Moon Jae-in, an opposition leader who is the front-runner in the race to replace Park, acknowledged that it would be difficult to overturn South Korea’s agreement to deploy the system. But he has insisted that the next South Korean government should have the final say on the matter, saying Park’s government never allowed a full debate on it.
Under its deal with Washington, South Korea is providing the land for the missile system and will build the base, but the U.S. will pay for the system, to be built by Lockheed Martin, as well as its operational costs.
A C-17 cargo plane landed at the U.S. military’s Osan Air Base, about 40 miles south of Seoul, on Monday evening, carrying two trucks, each mounted with a THAAD launchpad. More equipment and personnel will start arriving in the coming weeks, South Korean military officials said.
The South Korean Defense Ministry declined to specify when the system would be operational. But the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the deployment was likely to be completed in one or two months, with the system ready for use by April.
Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said policymakers in China had failed to grasp how Washington and its allies regarded North Korea’s nuclear program as getting closer to a dangerous threshold of being able to place a warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit U.S. cities.
“That’s a game-changer,” said Haenle, who was director for China on the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
China has long opposed U.S. missile defenses, in part because of fears that they might embolden American decision-makers to consider a first strike to destroy China’s small nuclear arsenal.
North Korea launches four missiles from an undisclosed location in this image taken from video by KRT, Pyongyang’s state-run television station. North Korea said the move was a drill for striking U.S. bases in Japan.