South Korea yesterday said talks with the United States on deploying a sophisticated anti-missile radar system were crucial for self-defence against North Korea's growing military arsenal.
Seoul stood firm on starting the talks with Washington over the use of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) missile system on the Korean Peninsula.
"The deployment of Thaad is a self-defence measure against growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea," said presidential spokesman Jeong Yeon Guk.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also said the North Korean threat was the "only reason" for the two allies to discuss the Thaad deployment. He made the comments at a joint news conference after meeting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington.
"We have made it very clear that we are not hungry or anxious to deploy Thaad," said Mr Kerry, adding that the planned talks were in response to Pyongyang's recent provocative actions.
The news came after China's ambassador South Korea, Mr Qiu Guohong, was quoted as saying Beijing vehemently opposes the Thaad deployment, which he said could affect China's national interests and "destroy" bilateral relations with South Korea. He made the comments during a meeting with the leader of South Korea's opposition Minjoo Party on Tuesday.
Thaad is one of the most advanced missile defence systems in the world. It is known to be able to intercept incoming short- and medium-range ballistic missiles with a 100 per cent success rate.
The deployment of Thaad to South Korea was first raised last year, but the country deferred making a decision because of strong protests from China, its biggest trade partner.
Beijing is apparently concerned that Thaad could undermine its own missile capability, and that its powerful radar could be used to monitor China's military sites.
"Ultimately, by opposing Thaad deployment, Beijing is trying to directly influence South Korea's strategic choices, and in doing so, weaken the US-Korea alliance," said assistant professor Michael Raska from the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He noted that Beijing has been "virtually silent" on its ally Pyongyang's missile threat.
Recent provocations from North Korea - a nuclear test and a rocket launch - have prompted South Korea and the US to boost their security alliance and strengthen military drills. The two allies also agreed to start official talks to discuss where and when to deploy Thaad, as well as the costs and risks involved.
The talks were originally scheduled for Tuesday, but have been postponed to next week, apparently to avoid clashing with the Kerry- Wang Yi meeting on the same day.
Support for Thaad deployment is high within South Korea. A recent survey by Korea Research Centre showed 67.1 per cent of respondents agreed that South Korea needs to arm itself with Thaad to counter North Korean threats.
But various groups, from lawmakers to environmental activists and ordinary citizens, have also voiced concern over the health and safety risks of strong electromagnetic radiation from Thaad's radar.
In a bid to address such concerns, Defence Minister Han Min Koo told the National Assembly last week that the electromagnetic waves would not pose a threat to anyone standing more than 100m away.