By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, June 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will arm its Aegis destroyers with the surface-to-air Standard Missile 6 (SM-6) starting 2016 as part of efforts to bolster its missile defense against North Korean threats, a senior government official said Wednesday.
The SM-6, which is suitable for low-altitude sky defense with a maximum range of 320-400 kilometers, is an upgrade of the SM-2 by U.S. defense firm Raytheon.
The South Korean military has sought to upgrade its SM-2 missiles deployed on one of its three Aegis destroyers as they are considered ineffective in shooting down North Korea's ballistic missiles due to their short range.
The decision to buy the newest naval missiles is part of Seoul's plan to develop an independent, low-tier missile shield called the Korea Air and Missile Defense System (KAMD).
"The defense ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will prepare a plan to develop the KAMD system to deter North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons by the end of this year," the official said, asking for anonymity as he is not allowed to talk to media.
The KAMD involves early warning radars, ship-to-air and land-based missile defense systems, arming Seoul with the ability to track and shoot down the North's low-flying, short- and medium-range missiles, with help of U.S. early warning satellites.
The KAMD plan includes purchasing hundreds of rounds of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles and additional PAC-2 missiles for deployment from next year, as well as development of mid- and long-range surface-to-air missiles in the next decade.
For that goal, the South Korean military has jointly formed a working group with its U.S. counterparts to conduct a study on the Korean missile defense system, the official said.
"We will operate a working group with the U.S. to analyze the KAMD program," he said. "The research is expected to be completed around February 2014."
The latest move, however, sparked further speculation that Seoul is preparing to join the U.S.-led missile defense system that involves ground-based interceptors and the X-band radar.
The issue of whether to join the costly American program has been a sensitive one in South Korea as it could spur a regional arms race with China and further contribute to mounting costs in the national missile program.
On Tuesday, an opposition lawmaker claimed that South Korea is one of America's partners on its missile defense program, citing Seoul's participation in U.S.-led international defense training and trilateral drills last year, which also included Japan.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, however, denied Seoul's participation in the U.S. missile defense program, saying America's multi-tiered anti-missile defense system does not suit the battlefield environment of the Korean Peninsula.
As speculation grows, the defense ministry on Wednesday issued a statement to reiterate its earlier stance of not having joined the U.S. missile shield.
"Our military is currently working to establish a Korean missile defense system focusing on final stage, low-altitude defense that fits the strategic atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula," the defense ministry said in a release.
For the effective establishment and operation of the Korean system, Seoul is cooperating with Washington in intelligence sharing, and participating in international missile defense trainings as part of that effort, the ministry said.
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