An American missile defense system installed in South Korea is now operational and ready to intercept missiles from North Korea, the U.S. military said, as tensions on the peninsula remain high in the lead-up to a presidential election next week.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reports that the U.S. Forces in Korea confirmed that the system is now up and running. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, is in place earlier than expected amid anxiety over the North’s accelerated weapons testing and political uncertainty in the South.
While the system, a $1 billion battery by Lockheed Martin, was initially slated to be deployed by the end of the year, parts were installed last week under an agreement between the U.S. and South Korea’s caretaker government.
Moon Jae-in, the moderate liberal frontrunner for next week’s election, has said that he might renegotiate the terms of the deployment. The system faces increasing opposition at home, and is deeply resisted by China.
Beijing views THAAD as a threat to its security, and has subjected South Korea to economic pressure over hosting it; South Korean companies such as Lotte Group, which provided land for the deployment, have had many of their stores shuttered on the mainland.
U.S. President Donald Trump suggested last week that he would seek to make Seoul pay for the controversial defense outfit, causing both confusion and anger among allies in the South. The administration later backtracked on the President’s remarks, reaffirming that the U.S. would, in fact, cover the expense as originally agreed.
While the system has been met with protest by communities near the deployment site, experts say it is a necessary measure to protect the South and the U.S. against the threat of North Korean aggression. Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, a panel of experts recommended deploying additional defensive assets in South Korea, and possibly installing a similar system to THAAD in Japan.
Panelists also warned that North Korean provocations, such as missile or nuclear testing, typically occur in close correlation with major political events in the South, such as national elections. None, however, recommended measures such as interfering with a test launch. Pyongyang has warned that any military intervention by the U.S. would be cause for retaliation, and has explicitly threatened U.S. allies South Korea, Japan and, most recently, Australia.
North Korea has made rapid progress in recent years toward its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped long-range missile, with a stated aim of targeting the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang’s increasingly frequent missile launches and sporadic nuclear tests have alarmed Washington and sparked a war of words between Trump and the regime of Kim Jong Un that some fear could escalate into conflict on the peninsula.