North Korea launch may spur talks on US missile defense buildup in Asia

A Chinese paramilitary guard walking next to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Feb 7, 2016.
A Chinese paramilitary guard walking next to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Feb 7, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS)- North Korea's latest rocket launch may kick off a rapid buildup of US missile defenses in Asia, according to US officials and missile defense experts, something that could further strain ties between the United States and China.

North Korea says it put a satellite into orbit on Sunday (Feb 7), but the United States and its allies see the launch as cover for Pyongyang's development of ballistic missile technology that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon.

Washington vowed to ensure that the United Nations Security Council imposed serious consequences on Pyongyang after the launch, which followed a Jan 6 North Korean nuclear test, and sought to reassure its allies South Korea and Japan of its ironclad commitment to defending the region.

The United States and South Korea issued a joint statement just hours after the launch saying they would begin formal discussions about deploying the sophisticated Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, to the Korean peninsula"at the earliest possible date."

South Korea had been reluctant to discuss openly the possibility of deploying THAAD due to worries about upsetting China, its biggest trading partner.

Beijing, at odds with the United States over Washington's reaction to its building of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, has expressed "deep concern" about a system whose radar could penetrate its territory.

Russia has also raised concerns about increased US missile defense assets in Asia.

TIPPING POINT

But the North Korean rocket launch, on top of last month's nuclear test, could be a "tipping point" for South Korea and win over parts of Seoul's political establishment that remain wary of such a move, a US official said.

South Korea and the United States said that if THAAD was deployed to South Korea, it would be focused only on North Korea.

Washington moved one of its five THAAD systems to Guam in 2013 following North Korean threats, and is now studying the possibility of converting a Hawaii test site for a land-based version of the shipboard Aegis missile defense system into a combat-ready facility.

Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said in November that Tokyo would consider deploying THAAD to bolster ballistic missile defenses.

Japanese officials could not immediately be reached for comment on whether Tokyo would now seek a THAAD system after North Korea's rocket flew over Japan's southern Okinawa prefecture on Sunday (Feb 7).

Riki Ellison, founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said the launch would give Japan momentum to do so.

Some experts questioned how effective THAAD would be against the type of long-range rocket launched by North Korea and the Pentagon concedes it has yet to be tested against such a device.

John Schilling, a contributor to the Washington-based 38 North project that monitors North Korea, said THAAD's advanced AN/TPY-2 tracking radar built by Raytheon Co could provide an early, precise track on any such missile. But it could also carry out similar tracking of the ICBMs that China counts on for strategic deterrence.

THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles inside or just outside the atmosphere during their final, or terminal, phase of flight. It has so far proven effective against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while THAAD could not shoot down the type of rocket launched on Sunday (Feits deployment could reassure the South Korean public. "But this would mainly be symbolic," he said. "Much of what missile defense programs are about is reassuring allies and the public with little or no capability to actually do that."

George Lewis, a missile defense expert at Cornell University, said THAAD might provide useful information if a rocket like that launched on Sunday was ever fired against U.S. territory, including Guam.

SUITABLE SITE IDENTIFIED

One US official said the North Korean launch added urgency to longstanding informal discussions about a possible THAAD deployment to South Korea. "Speed is the priority," said the official, who asked not to be named ahead of a formal decision.

Renewed missile-defense discussions with the United States could also send a message to Beijing that it needs to do more to rein in North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, another US official said.

South Korean officials have already identified a suitable site for the system, but it could also be placed at a US base on the Korean peninsula, Ellison said.

THAAD is a system built by Lockheed Martin Corp that can be transported by air, sea or land. The Pentagon has ordered two more batteries from Lockheed.

One of the four THAAD batteries based at Fort Bliss, Texas, is always ready for deployment overseas, and could be sent to Japan or South Korea within weeks, Ellison said.

Lockheed referred all questions about a possible THAAD deployment to the US military.