A controversial US missile defense system is up and running in South Korea, a week before the country’s presidential election is expected to bring in a government critical of its deployment.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system “is operational and has the ability to intercept North Korean missiles and defend the Republic of Korea,” a spokesman for US Forces Korea said in a statement.
THAAD was deployed to South Korea by the US in response to North Korea’s increased missile and nuclear tests, but the defense system has drawn sharp opposition from China and Russia, whose territory is within the system’s range.
China again expressed its displeasure Tuesday, urging both sides to “stop the deployment immediately.”
“We will also firmly take necessary measures to safeguard our own interests,” added Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
The system may have been deployed, but according to a US defense official, its operation is “limited.”
Nevertheless, the official said the system is capable of shooting down a North Korean missile, adding that the US hopes to install additional units to increase coverage over South Korea.
The anti-missile system is not expected to be fully operational until the end of the year, but US and South Korean officials publicly stressed the need to speed up the deployment of the technology as tensions mounted with Pyongyang.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-kyun said at a briefing last week that equipment, including launchers, combat control stations and radar, had been deployed to the site in North Gyeongsang province and would be imminently operational.
“These things are now in place, so you can connect them to get the operational capability from early on — that’s what ‘within days’ means,” he said.
Moon Jae-in, the frontrunner in South Korea’s Presidential election which takes place on May 9, has expressed skepticism over THAAD.
Throughout his campaign he’s called for its deployment to be decided by the next government.
Speaking to South Korean radio station BBS FM on Tuesday, Moon said the deployment was “not a done deal yet,” and should be based on public consultation and a vote in the country’s National Assembly.
Moon’s Democratic Party is currently 20 points clear of its nearest rival, according to the most recent Gallup Korea daily opinion poll. Around 40% of voters surveyed said they favored Moon, compared with 24% for centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo.
THAAD is designed to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the latter stages of their flight as they plunge toward their targets.
While this means it cannot act against the type of intermediate-range missiles North Korea has been testing in recent months, THAAD also includes a sophisticated radar that will fit into an overlapping series of US missile defense systems, including Aegis warships operating in the Pacific and Patriot missile batteries deployed to Japan.
The radar could provide critical early tracking data to these missile interception systems, as well as those protecting Guam, the closest US territory to North Korea.