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South Korea to approve US missile defense system

An American missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployed on a golf course in Seongju, South Korea. Photo: AP

South Korea is poised to give its consent to further deployment of a controversial US missile defense system, a day after North Korea claimed that it had successfully tested a powerful hydrogen bomb capable of being loaded on to a long-range missile.

The first two terminal high-altitude area defense (Thaad) anti-missile batteries went operational, amid widespread opposition, in the central village of Seongju in late April, but the deployment of a further four batteries was suspended pending the outcome of an environmental impact assessment.

On Monday morning, Yonhap News Agency said that the environment ministry had given its "conditional consent" to the installation of additional Thaad batteries, but gave no further details.

South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, had initially opposed Thaad's introduction, which had been agreed to by his conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye. But he appears to have softened his stance in light of North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests, and a dramatic rise in tensions on the peninsula since he took office in May.

The new launchers will also be deployed in Seongju, about 300 kilometers south of Seoul. Each Thaad battery comprises six launchers and a radar system. China has angrily opposed Thaad deployment, saying that the system's powerful radar could be used to spy on its own missile program and so represents a threat to its national security.

South Korea's military has released images of its live-fire exercises, held at undisclosed locations on Monday in response to North Korea's nuclear test. It involved Hyunmoo ballistic missiles and F-15K fighter jets as well as troop movements on the ground.

The exercises, along with the conditional approval for the Thaad defense system, appear to be further evidence of President Moon's departure from the route of diplomacy.

On Sunday morning, North Korea carried out its sixth nuclear test, triggering a 5.7 magnitude tremor in the northeast of the country, which the rogue state claimed was caused by the detonation of a hydrogen bomb.

Although such claims should be treated with caution, as the regime also bragged that its fifth test in September 2016 was a hydrogen bomb — an assertion largely dismissed by experts — Sunday's estimated 120 kiloton explosion is around ten times the magnitude of its previous test, and clearly shows the Kim Jong-un regime's technical capabilities are advancing.

In a tweet, US President Donald Trump condemned the test: "North Korea has conducted a major nuclear test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States."

North Korea's state media confirmed the test, which it hailed as a "perfect success", just an hour before Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his keynote speech to world leaders the opening of a BRICS summit in China's southern city of Xiamen. Xi did not mention the test in his speech, though China's Foreign Ministry released a statement that "strongly condemned" it.

There's relatively little on the front pages of China's state-run newspapers this morning about Sunday's nuclear test partly because they do not want the nuclear test to steal the spotlight.

The Communist Party's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, has just one line about the crisis, beneath a photograph of President Xi welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin to China yesterday.

Its report says that the pair agreed to "appropriately deal" with the situation and to maintain "close communication and coordination".

The English-language China Daily, an international mouthpiece for China's government, has more to say. In an editorial, the newspaper says North Korea's latest test "indicates it has taken a big step in its pursuit of nuclear prowess".

"The latest development … if true, may indeed give Pyongyang the means to carry out its threats of launching doomsday attacks on enemy targets. Given Pyongyang's readiness to put to use each and every of its newly acquired capabilities against perceived enemies, this is a particularly dangerous move in its tactic of using nuclear and missile tests to draw attention to its demands," the China Daily argues.

The newspaper says that it is now time to return to the negotiating table with North Korea. "Sunday's test will obviously not be its last show of defiance ... [The international community must now consider] Pyongyang's genuine needs, especially food and national security."

How will Trump respond?

The test offers more evidence that North Korea is moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US, let alone key allies like Japan or South Korea in much closer proximity. With the US homeland looking increasingly vulnerable, US President Trump and his allies in the region want to build international pressure following the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last month which banned mineral and seafood exports worth some $1 billion to the regime.

On Friday, US President Trump and South Korean President Moon agreed to ramp up US missile defenses in South Korea, where one American Thaad anti-missile battery is currently deployed.

A few weeks ago, US President Trump asserted that the North Korean regime "is behaving in a very dangerous manner, and something will have to be done about it…and probably dealt with rapidly."

While Washington's next steps are not crystal clear, the two-decades-long US policy of "strategic patience" towards Pyongyang is now over with all options on the table. Aside from military force, which US President Trump has threatened with his "fire and fury" and "locked and loaded" rhetoric, scenarios range from a new round of peace talks at the dovish end of the spectrum, to more hawkish actions like interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime's key sources of income.

However, Washington knows it would be wise to try to bring other parties, especially Beijing, on board for any intensified package of measures. Yet, beyond key regional allies like Tokyo and Seoul, others – especially Beijing – have so far been reluctant to take more comprehensive, sweeping measures.

China has taken some unilateral actions to tighten the screws on North Korea, including banning all coal imports into the country in February. However, it has reservations about squeezing its neighbor too much harder.


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