By Jun Ji-hye
Defense Minister Han Min-koo Monday cited the need for the nation to review a U.S. plan to deploy an advanced missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula to better deter North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile threats.
"We should deal with the issue of the terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) system from the perspective of national security and defense," he said during a news program. "Militarily speaking, it is necessary to review the deployment as we have limited capabilities."
The comments come at a time when debate over whether to deploy THAAD on Korean soil has been reigniting both in Seoul and Washington in the wake of the North's alleged hydrogen bomb test on Jan. 6.
Han's remarks followed President Park Geun-hye's nationally televised address on Jan. 13, where she underlined the need to review the issue of deploying THAAD here based on security and national interests given the North's nuclear and missile threats.
The possible deployment of THAAD has been a bone of contention among regional powers, especially between the United States and China.
The statements by Park and Han apparently showed a subtle change in the position of the government, given that Seoul had been reluctant to openly approve of THAAD deployment due to the objections of China, the South's biggest trading partner.
The U.S. government has been hoping to deploy THAAD batteries here, with the Kim Jong-un regime modernizing its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. In 2014, the U.S. conducted a site inspection for the missile interceptor system.
The missile shield system is intended to protect U.S troops stationed here, but Beijing strongly opposes its presence, out of concerns that its controlling radar system could potentially compromise its national defense.
Recent comments made by Seoul on THAAD deployment are also seen as a measure to get China to swiftly rein in the Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, with Beijing, traditionally an ally of the North, largely seen as maintaining a lukewarm stance on the North's nuclear development.
This has raised speculation that China, a veto-holding permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is seeking to water down the U.N.-led sanctions -- in a familiar pattern -- following the North's previous nuclear and long-range missile tests.
The THAAD system, with a range of 150 kilometers, is regarded as an indispensable element of the U.S. missile defense (MD) system.
Regarding Pyongyang's submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) capability, Minister Han assessed that the North is believed to be on the path toward completing its capability of launching ballistic missiles from underwater, which is regarded as the second stage of development.
"The development of an SLBM requires four steps _ the test launch of missiles on the ground, the test of launching them from under the water, their test flights and finally deployment," he said. "Given that the North has conducted tests launching missiles from under the water several times, it is believed to be completing that stage."
He added that countries in general deployed SLBMs three to four years after the test-fire of missiles from underwater.
"I expect the North to follow this. If the regime concentrates all its capacity possible into the development, they could possibly do it faster," he said.