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Seoul, Washington to formally begin THAAD talks

Feb. 7, 2016 - 16:43 By Shin Hyon-hee
Seoul and Washington on Sunday declared formal talks on a stationing of advanced U.S. missile defense assets on the peninsula, reflecting North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats attested once again by its ostensibly successful fresh long-range missile test earlier in the day.

“South Korea and the U.S. assess that the North’s latest nuclear test and long-range ballistic missile launch demonstrate its grave threats of atomic bombs, weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles to the peace and stability of the peninsula and the entire Asia Pacific region,” Seoul’s Deputy Defense Minister Yoo Jeh-seung said at a news conference announcing the negotiations. 

South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Yoo Jeh-seung(right) and Eigth U.S. Army Commander Thomas S. Vandal attend a press briefing in Seoul, Sunday. (Yonhap)

Despite rampant speculation over behind-the-curtain talks and site selection, South Korea has long eschewed public reference to the issue, due largely to the rigid opposition of China that regards the equipment’s deployment here as de facto joining in the U.S.-led global missile defense program targeting it.

While the public and academia remain sharply divided, the mood was seen increasingly warming among diplomatic and military officials toward the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in recent months.

Even some past skeptics shifted their ground, saying its presence will help deter and defend Pyongyang’s threats given Seoul’s limited own capabilities, especially after Pyongyang’s tests of submarine-launched ballistic missiles last year and fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6.

Following the atomic explosion, President Park Geun-hye and then Defense Minister Han Min-koo publicly displayed their consideration and upbeat views about the system’s value for the first time.

In its latest provocation, North Korea on Sunday launched its Gwangmyeongseong-4 rocket, presumably with longer range and heavier payload, indicating its advanced long-range missile capabilities.

The newest rocket launch magnifies the communist state’s overall progressing nuclear capabilities, coupled with the first successful launch in December 2012, and the latest atomic experiment, during which it claimed to have used a hydrogen bomb.

Though Pyongyang argues Sunday’s event was aimed at putting a satellite into orbit for earth observation in line with its national aerospace development program, it constitutes a breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting the country from any launch involving ballistic missile technology.

As for Seoul, the decision on THAAD could be a sign of frustration over China’s lukewarm attitude toward a denuclearization of the North. With Beijing resisting Washington’s demands for stronger punishment after the underground blast, the current UNSC discussions have been unprecedentedly strung out for more than a month.

Given worldwide condemnations over Pyongyang’s chain of defiant provocations, the missile test is also poised to boost momentum for an ongoing international push to enforce stricter sanctions and inevitably undercut China’s rationale behind its backing for the intractable regime.

The council is set to hold an emergency session at 11 a.m. on Sunday in New York time following a request from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.

With the UNSC already working on a resolution over the North’s Jan. 6 fourth fission bomb test, the three countries have been pressing for much more powerful international sanctions such as banking and financial embargoes, while crafting unilateral or joint penalties.

“The UNSC should formulate potent sanctions as soon as possible under the perception that North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats pose a substantial threat to the international community and an outright disaster for world peace,” President Park Geun-hye said during an emergency National Security Council meeting at Cheong Wa Dae.

The latest provocation also throws a trickier choice to Beijing between a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and its longstanding priority of the stability of its poverty-stricken neighbor and their extensive, porous border.

But the missile liftoff, which Beijing has sought to deter over the past couple weeks, is likely to have enraged the staunch sponsor and may help induce its endorsement for harsher sanctions, albeit reluctantly, some officials and observers say.

Yet many others remain skeptical about Beijing’s any imminent about-face and comprehensive halt of trade or oil supplies, though it could impose a temporary ban as it did following previous major provocations.

China’s Foreign Ministry promptly issued a statement expressing “regret” that North Korea “ignored the international community’s universal opposition” and pushed ahead with the firing. But it acknowledged the North’s right to the peaceful use of space and again called for relevant parties -- presumably including the South and the U.S. -- to exercise a “cool head and restrain.”

“Now with the missile test, Beijing would have a hard time keeping its face on the world stage and propping up logic behind its patronage for the increasingly unruly Kim Jong-un regime,” a senior Seoul diplomat said, asking anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“But this doesn’t necessarily mean that China will sit idle watching North Korea’s economy crumble seriously and perhaps the regime and the society fall into ruins because of the sanctions. Kim fired the missile because he knew it most likely.”

The Seoul government, for its part, fortified readiness across border and held a string of security-related meetings throughout the day, stating that further provocation, including a fourth nuclear test by the North is a possibility.

South Korea said it will further reduce the number of nationals to a joint industrial park in North Korea to about 500 from the current 650. The cross-border propaganda broadcasts will also be expanded, the government said.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said that South Korea will also hold its biggest-ever joint military drills with the United States this year to counter North Korea’s provocations.

“The countermeasure includes military action to correspond to North Korea’s military provocations to deter further provocations, along with holding a high-tech, biggest-ever military drill this year,” said Army. Maj. Gen. Kim Yong-hyun, a senior official at the JCS.