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South Korea, U.S. to start talks on anti-missile system

Yoo Jeh-seung, right, South Korea’s deputy minister for policy, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, commander of U.S. Forces Korea’s Eighth Army, announced Sunday that their countries would start talks on deploying an anti-missile defense system. (Yonhap)

North Korea's latest rocket launch has helped South Korea overcome some of its hesitation about hosting a sophisticated American anti-missile system on its soil, a move that could anger China.

South Korean and American military officials said Sunday that they had agreed to begin negotiations for the “earliest possible” deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as THAAD.

The announcement came hours after North Korea put a satellite into orbit, a launch widely viewed as part of the regime's efforts to develop its inter-continental ballistic missile technology.

“North Korea continues to develop their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and it is the responsibility of our alliance to maintain a strong defense against those threats,” Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said in a statement. “THAAD can add an important capability in a layered and effective missile defense.”

THAAD is a land-based system designed to shoot down incoming short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles. According to the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, each THAAD battery includes a mobile, truck-mounted launcher, with eight interceptors that can be fired and rapidly reloaded and a transportable radar surveillance system.

Although South Korean officials have been considering the system, it has been a controversial topic, largely because of the country's increasingly close economic and diplomatic ties with China, which opposes the idea of anti-missile batteries in the Korean Peninsula.

Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told South Korea's Yonhap News Agency last month that China hoped that South Korea "will handle the matter prudently."

Beijing believes all countries also should consider the national interests of other nations when taking their own security into account, she said.

Russia also opposes the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.

The joint U.S.-South Korean statement stated explicitly that if THAAD was deployed to the Korean Peninsula, “it would be focused solely on North Korea.”

North Korea’s rocket, an Unha-3, was launched Saturday from a site near the Chinese border. It flew down the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, with debris from the first stage falling near the southern South Korean island of Jeju. The rocket’s second stage continued over the southern Japanese island of Okinawa before landing in the East China Sea.

Japan had Patriot surface-to-air missiles poised in Tokyo and Okinawa to shoot down the rocket.

If the THAAD deployment proceeds, South Korea will provide the land for the system while the United States would fund its operation. One THAAD battery costs about $1.3 billion.

There had been speculation in Seoul that Korean President Park Geun-hye’s government was inching closer to discussions about the anti-missile system. Local media have been reporting on visits over the last month by officials from THAAD manufacturer Lockheed Martin.