By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea and the United States said on Friday they had decided to deploy an advanced missile defense system with the U.S. military stationed in South Korea to counter North Korea's missile threat.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system will be deployed solely to counter the threat from the North, the South's Defence Ministry and the U.S. Defence Department said in a joint statement.
South Korea said it aims for a deployment "soon". The Yonhap news agency said the system was expected to be in operation by the end of 2017 at the latest, citing the South's defense ministry.
"South Korea and the United States made an alliance decision to deploy THAAD to USFK as a defensive measure to ensure the security of the South and its people, and to protect alliance military forces from North Korea's weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats," the joint statement said.
USFK stands for U.S. Forces Korea, which includes 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea.
"When the THAAD system is deployed to the Korean Peninsula, it will be focused solely on North Korean nuclear and missile threats and would not be directed towards any third party nations," the statement said.
China, which backed tough U.N. sanctions against the North after Pyongyang's nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch this year, has objected to the proposed THAAD deployment in the South as the system's radar can reach into its territory.
China's Foreign Ministry said it was strongly opposed to the deployment of the defense system and urged South Korea and the United States to put a stop to it.
A joint South Korea-U.S. working groups is preparing to determine the best location for deploying THAAD, according to the joint statement.
The working group of defense officials has been discussing the feasibility of the deployment and potential locations for the THAAD unit in the South since February, after a North Korean rocket launch put an object into space orbit.
The launch was condemned by the U.N. Security Council as a test of a long-range missile in disguise, which the North is prohibited from doing under several Security Council resolutions.
North Korea rejects the ban, saying it is an infringement on its sovereignty and its right to space exploration.
North Korea in late June launched an intermediate range ballistic missile off its east coast in what was believed to be a test that showed some advancement in the weapon's engine system.
(Reporting by Jack Kim; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Lincoln Feast)