SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — U.S. and South Korean military officials said Friday they're ready to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea to cope with North Korean threats. The announcement will raise strong objections in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang.
Seoul and Washington launched formal talks on deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, after North Korea conducted a nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch earlier this year. China, Russia and North Korea all say the THAAD deployment could help U.S. radars spot missiles in their countries.
On Friday, South Korea's deputy defense minister, Yoo Jeh Seung, told a nationally televised news conference that Seoul and Washington will quickly deploy the system because North Korea's growing weapons capabilities pose a big threat to the region.
He said the two countries are close to determining the best military location for THAAD while also satisfying environmental, health and safety standards.
At the same news conference, Lt. Gen. Thomas S. Vandal, the commanding general of the U.S. Eighth Army in South Korea, said the North's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction requires that the allies make sure they can defend themselves, and that THAAD is critical to their defensive strategy.
Worries about North Korea grew last month when, after a string of failures, it finally sent a new mid-range ballistic missile more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) high. Analysts say the high-altitude flight of the Musudan missile meant that North Korea had made progress in its push to be able to strike U.S. forces throughout the region.
The Musudan's potential 3,500-kilometer (2,180-mile) range puts much of Asia and the Pacific within reach.
North Korea is also trying to develop a long-range nuclear missile that can reach the continental U.S., but South Korean defense officials say Pyongyang doesn't yet possess such a weapon. Some believe, however, that the North does have the ability to mount nuclear warheads on shorter range missiles.
THAAD is also a sore spot between Washington and Beijing, which is a traditional ally of China.
Beijing in February agreed to the toughest U.N. sanctions yet to punish the North for its weapons development, and has vowed to implement them fully. But Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated Beijing's worries over the THAAD deployment when he met with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington in late March.
On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry swiftly criticized the move. "China expresses strong dissatisfaction and resolute objection to this," the ministry said in a statement posted on its website.
"Refrain from taking actions that complicate the region's situation and do not do things that harm China's strategic security interests," the statement said.
China said the missile defense system's deployment would not help bring about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and isn't conducive to peace in the region. The ministry said the move would "seriously damage" the security interests and strategic balance of the region.
North Korea has warned of a nuclear war in the region and has threatened to strengthen its armed forces if the missile deployment happens.
U.S. and South Korean officials says the missile defense system is designed purely to counter the threat of North Korean missiles and will not target China or anyone else. Many South Korean worry that China, the South's biggest trading partner, will take economic retaliatory measures.
The deployment decision also comes after North Korea said Thursday that U.S. sanctions on leader Kim Jong Un and other top officials for human rights abuses were tantamount to declaring war.
North Korea has already been sanctioned heavily because of its nuclear weapons program. However, Wednesday's action by the Obama administration was the first time Kim has been personally targeted, and the first time that any North Korean official has been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in connection with reports of rights abuses.
The United States stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea. China assisted North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, while American-led U.N. troops fought alongside South Korea.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.