The United States and South Korea are weighing Chinese opposition to a potential deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to the South, the U.S. Forces Korea commander said Thursday, strongly suggesting the two sides are discussing the issue.
The remark by Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti appears to run counter to what U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said during a visit to South Korea last week that the U.S. is not ready to begin discussions with Seoul about whether to deploy THAAD to the peninsula.
"I think both countries are taking that into consideration right now, in terms of the other impacts that have to do with the deployment of THAAD on the Peninsula," the USFK commander said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in response to a question whether Seoul and Washington would push against Chinese opposition to THAAD.
Scaparrotti also said the "decision process is under way right now," though he did not elaborate.
The USFK commander is the one who brought up the need for a THAAD battery in South Korea for the first time in June. The proposal has since become one of the most sensitive defense and political issues in Seoul as China and Russia have expressed strong opposition to such a deployment.
Supporters say the advanced missile defense unit is necessary to meet ever-growing missile and nuclear threats from North Korea, while opponents claim mid- and lower-altitude missile interceptors are enough as the North is unlikely to attack the South with such high-altitude missiles.
"I think this is a decision for South Korea, having to do with the defense of their country and from my perspective as a commander there, defense of our troops," Scaparrotti said. "The THAAD system, if employed, is focused on the defense of the peninsula. That's what it is specialized to do. It doesn't have any influence beyond that."
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Scaparrotti expressed the need for a THAAD deployment to South Korea, saying it would provide a "layered defense" for American troops and bolster the capabilities of Patriot and other existing systems.
On Thursday, the U.S. Pacific commander, Adm. Samuel Locklear, also told the Senate hearing that the U.S. is in discussions about a potential THAAD deployment to the South, though did not elaborate on what those discussions are, including whether they are internal discussions in the U.S. military or whether they mean talks with South Korea.
"Our ability in the region to partner with our Japanese allies and our South Korean allies to bring the BMD (ballistic missile defense) capabilities to bear has been productive. And in addition, we've been in discussions about the potential deployment of additional THAAD battery, beyond the one that's in Guam but on the Korean Peninsula," Locklear said.
Considering its sensitivity, South Korean officials have repeatedly said that there has been no U.S. request for a THAAD deployment, no formal consultations between the two countries and therefore no decision on the issue. (Yonhap)