|An undated file photo released by the North Korean Central News Agency, the state news agency of North Korea, shows the 'underwater test-launch of a strategic submarine ballistic missile' conducted at an undisclosed location in North Korea (reissued March 2017). Yonhap|
The United States will help South Korea prepare for threats posed by intermediate range missiles from its neighbors, but what defense capabilities will be developed and deployed will be entirely up to Seoul, a U.S. diplomat in charge of arms reduction said Friday.
"The South Korean government will have to decide for itself what kinds of capabilities it needs to have in order to discharge its responsibilities under our mutual defense agreement. That is something that only the Korean government can decide," Marshall Billingslea, special presidential envoy for arms control, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency.
The special envoy is set to visit Seoul for two days from Sunday (KST).
Billingslea's trip to South Korea will be his first since the former treasury official was named the special envoy, and also since the U.S. withdrew from the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed with the former Soviet Union, in August 2019.
The U.S. has since been developing defense capabilities to counter threats posed by medium and intermediate-range missiles held by Russia and also China, the U.S. diplomat said.
"So, the United States, for 33 years, faithfully implemented a Cold War treaty that prohibited the possession of these intermediate-range missile systems. Russia, about halfway through that treaty started to secretly cheat," he said regarding the reasons for the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty.
"China, on the other hand, was never part of any of that. And so for the past 33 years, China has been free to develop all kinds of intermediate-range and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and they have done exactly that," he added.
The U.S. envoy did not specify what the U.S. defense capabilities would include, but U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said he wanted to deploy conventional ground-based missiles in Asia, prompting concerns that such a move could spark an arms race.
The day after the U.S. pulled out of the INF, the U.S. defense chief said he would like ground-based missiles in Asia "sooner, rather than later."
Billingslea said it will take a "little more time" for the U.S. to develop its defense capabilities, noting the country has been legally able to develop such systems for only about a year since its withdrawal from the INF.
The U.S. will also help develop South Korea's own defense capabilities should the latter choose to ask for assistance.
"South Korea is very sophisticated technologically, and has its own strong industrial base. And so, I would leave it to the South Korean government to decide what it chooses to develop and deploy," he told Yonhap. "We certainly will offer to help in any way we can."
South Korea already houses a U.S. THAAD missile defense base, deployed in 2017.
The U.S. missile defense system seeks to insulate the Asian ally from North Korea's military provocations and threats, but its deployment has led to strong objections and economic retaliation against Seoul from neighboring China.
The U.S. envoy reiterated the decision to develop or deploy additional capabilities will be up to South Korea, but insisted China's past behavior toward the country may offer a reason to possess such capabilities.
"China demonstrated what a bully it tries to be with Korea, and how it tried to coerce the Republic of Korea," he said, referring to South Korea by its official name.
"And when it comes to China, we are talking about a country that practices intimidation with every one of its neighbors and threatens or actually in some cases uses force to exert its will and to redraw borders and boundaries," added Billingslea.
Such a view on China has increasingly been echoed by other top U.S. officials, who have stressed the need to form a regional alliance in the Indo-Pacific region to counter what they called "aggressions" from the Chinese Communist Party on all fronts.
"I think you are seeing the entire world begin to unite around the central understanding that the Chinese Communist Party simply is going to refuse to compete in a fair, reciprocal, transparent way," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said.
The U.S. is currently in dialogue with Australia, India and Japan in a four-way forum known as the Quad to build what it says will be a NATO-like multilateral structure in the region, and is pushing to expand the forum into Quad Plus by including others such as South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand.
Billingslea said he was unaware of the exact architecture of the envisioned multilateral structure, but highlighted the importance of U.S. allies in the region working together when necessary.
"I think the more important aspect here is that democracies have to stick together in the face of dictatorial bully, and democracies need to work together to make sure that we support one another and that we share collected defense when we can," he said. (Yonhap)