Posted : 2016-02-25 16:48
Updated : 2016-02-25 22:41

US-China deal may push THAAD talks to backburner

By Jun Ji-hye

An agreement between the U.S. and China on a draft U.N. resolution for sanctions against North Korea is expected to affect talks between Seoul and Washington on the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery here, officials and analysts said Thursday.

Depending on the Washington-Beijing deal, South Korea and the U.S. may delay indefinitely — or cancel — their THAAD talks, although their militaries are eager to start them as soon as possible, they said.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday after a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington, "We have made it very clear that we are not hungry or anxious to deploy THAAD," and that, "If we can get to denuclearization, there is no need to deploy THAAD."

Wang also said that "important progress" was made on a new U.N. resolution targeting the North's nuclear weapons program during his talks with Kerry, and that an agreement on the resolution would be possible "in the near future."

Their remarks suggest that the two powers apparently made a "big deal" in Washington — Beijing is believed to have demanded that Washington withdraw its plan to deploy the THAAD on the Korean Peninsula in return for its cooperation on producing a U.N. resolution containing stronger and more effective sanctions against Pyongyang.

Kerry's remark is seen as leaving open the possibility for the U.S. to reverse its decision to deploy THAAD on the peninsula in an effort to encourage China to play a greater role in reining in the repressive state, given that Beijing is one of five veto-holding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), and the main provider of food and fuel aid to the impoverished North.

China has long been opposed to the deployment of a THAAD battery on the peninsula, out of concerns that its radar could be used to spy on Beijing's military activities. The country is also apparently concerned that the deployment would expand American influence within Northeast Asia.

Militaries of the U.S. and South Korea have said that the THAAD is necessary on the peninsula to better deter threats from the North, and their working-level talks on deployment of the system are set to begin at the earliest possible date.

But the allies abruptly delayed the signing of a terms of reference for the Joint Working Group (JWG) on the THAAD deployment just hours before a ceremony, Tuesday, when Wang visited the United States for talks with Kerry.

The JWG was supposed to hold its first meeting to discuss details of the deployment including possible locations after the signing.

At the time, the Ministry of National Defense said the signing would be put off by one or two days, but at the time of writing, the ministry has still failed to clarify if this would take place.

The government is still sticking to the necessity of THAAD deployment despite concerns over worsening relations with China, Seoul's No. 1 trading partner. It stressed that whether to host a THAAD battery is a sovereign right of South Korea, and the issue is not linked with Beijing's participation in the U.N. sanctions.

"The signing is being delayed as communication between the U.S. government and the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is still ongoing," deputy ministry spokesman Col. Na Seng-yong said at a regular briefing, Thursday. "The JWG will start its operations soon, once the terms of reference are signed."

For his part, the USFK Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the House Armed Services Committee, Wednesday, that the allies are expected to hold the first meeting of the JWG "within a week."

He also noted that it will take some time to deploy the THAAD system to South Korea because the working group has to determine the right location and other details.

"THAAD is a complex system. It's going to take some time for us to find the right location because where you locate it makes a difference on how effective it is," he said.

Follow Jun Ji-hye on Twitter @TheKopJihye

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