|Members of a civic group hold a press conference in front of Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, Friday, to protest against the alleged U.S. plan to push Korea to fund a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province. They demanded that the U.S. and Korea remove the anti-missile system from Korea. / Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
Korea is back in the hot seat as the U.S. military has announced plans to improve its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries including the one here.
As the upgrade is focused on extending the range of its defense area, the plan is raising speculations that the launchers may be transferred to Seoul or its surrounding areas, or that additional launchers may be deployed, which may reignite disputes with China over the anti-missile system. A report has also sparked concerns that the U.S. may push Korea to fund the construction of the THAAD base, which could run counter to the allies' agreement on the issue.
The battery system upgrade was disclosed earlier this week by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
"Additionally in fiscal year 2021, we will complete the integration of missile defense capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. We will initiate the development of an improved THAAD interceptor for layered homeland defense," John Hill, the director of the agency, said in a press briefing at the Department of Defense, Feb. 10.
In 2017, an anti-missile battery was deployed in the southeastern county of Seongju, north Gyeongsang Province, to counter North Korean missile threats.
According to Hill, the improvements to the layered missile defense system will give it extended range by remotely controlling the launchers of THAAD.
"If you can separate the launchers away from the battery that gives you a lot of flexibility on the Korean Peninsula. So you could put the battery further back, you can move the radar back, you can put the launchers forward, you can bring in additional launchers. And so that capability is not in a typical THAAD battery today," he said.
THAAD, designed to shoot down short- and medium-range and intermediate ballistic missiles in their terminal phase, is currently controlled by wires but the U.S. military has made efforts to remotely control the missile defense system. Actually, the U.S. Army successfully conducted its first test of a remotely fired THAAD interceptor, Aug. 30, 2019.
Hill also said the U.S. is working on launching Patriot missiles using the more efficient THAAD radar.
The THAAD system on the peninsula has been criticized for its lack of coverage that cannot defend Seoul and its surrounding areas, but Hill's remarks are prompting speculation that the THAAD launchers could be moved from Seongju and stationed elsewhere ― although he did not elaborate on how far the U.S. plans to separate the launchers from the battery.
In response, the South Korean defense ministry said nothing on the issue has been discussed between Seoul and Washington.
"The relocation of the THAAD battery needs bilateral agreement between the two countries," a ministry official said.
If the plan is implemented, Korea is highly anticipated to face backlash from China, which adamantly opposes the missile system, claiming it is used to spy on China's military.
The THAAD deployment on Korean soil resulted in economic retaliation from the Chinese government, including a still-effective ban on its people's group tours to Korea.
Another controversy surrounding THAAD is the U.S. may request for South Korea to share the expenses required to construct facilities at the Seongju base.
The fiscal year 2021 budget proposal of the Department of the Army dated Feb. 3 showed that the U.S. earmarked $49 million (58 billion won) for the development of the THAAD base, addressing the possibility that the "host nation" will cover the costs.
"The possibility of Host Nation funding has been addressed," it said. "Funds from Host Nations programs are available to support this requirement."
The funding is counter to the South Korean government's previous statements that the U.S. shoulders the cost of the THAAD deployment.
The Korean defense ministry reaffirmed the government's stance. "There is no agreement between allies that the host nation will cover the construction cost," the ministry official said.
Speculation is that the U.S. has or will use the THAAD system cost in negotiations to raise Korea's share in the ongoing defense cost-sharing talks. Seoul and Washington have not yet made a deal for this year's cost-sharing agreement for the upkeep of United States Forces Korea troops, with the U.S. demanding a huge hike in South Korea's share.