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Pentagon to deploy anti-missile system in South Korea

A man in South Korea watches a broadcast about a North Korean missile launch in May. (AP)

The United States will install a sophisticated anti-missile system in South Korea, showing that Seoul’s fears about North Korea’s military provocations have overtaken its worries about opposition to the buildup from regional heavyweight China.

In a statement, the Defense Department said the two countries had conducted months of consultations about deploying a  terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) battery to South Korea, which would be operated by U.S. forces stationed there. THAAD is a land-based missile defense system.

Now, the two countries have decided to approve that step as a “defensive measure” against North Korea, the Pentagon said.

“North Korea’s nuclear test and multiple ballistic missile tests, including the recent intermediate-range ballistic missile launches, highlight the grave threat that North Korea poses to the security and stability of the Republic of Korea and the entire Asia-Pacific region,” its statement said.

series of weapons tests by Pyongyang this year, including a suspected nuclear detonation in January, have stoked anxiety in Seoul and as far away as Washington. This spring, President Obama said he would adjust the U.S. missile defense system because of North Korea. Just this week, the United States placed sanctions on North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and other government officials over suspected human rights abuses.

But China, with its increasingly assertive military posture through the region, has objected to the military buildup on its doorstep, a position that gave officials in Seoul, mindful of the country’s deep ties to China, pause.

In a suggestion that Washington and Seoul are seeking to negotiate carefully around Beijing’s position, the Pentagon said the new system would be installed as a reaction to the threat from North Korea and “would not be directed towards any third party nations.”

Tensions between China and the United States have increased in recent months over Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea, where Chinese broad territorial claims have been increasingly visible. Next week, a U.N.-appointed tribunal is expected to rule on a portion of that dispute.

A site has not been selected in South Korea for the THAAD system. The two countries “are working closely to ensure the swift deployment of THAAD and will develop specific operational procedures,” the Pentagon said.

There are about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.