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(Yonhap Interview) THAAD deployment up to 'alliance decision': U.S. Pacific commander

All News 07:00 January 31, 2016

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- Whether to deploy the U.S. THAAD missile defense system to South Korea to better defend against the North is "an alliance decision" that should be taken jointly by the two allies, the U.S. Pacific commander said.

Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. made the remark in an interview with Yonhap News Agency, stressing that even though he personally supports the idea of putting a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit in the South, such a deployment won't be a unilateral decision.

"I believe the decision to put THAAD on the Korean Peninsula or even the decision to think about it has to be an alliance decision," he said during the Jan. 25 interview. "It has to be a decision that's made together between the U.S. and the ROK. It's not our decision to ask the South, and it's not the ROK decision to ask us to bring it. It's an alliance decision."

He is the first U.S. Pacific commander to hold an interview with South Korean media.

North Korea's Jan. 6 nuclear test, the country's fourth, rekindled talk of more missile defense, including THAAD deployment to South Korea. President Park Geun-hye said earlier this month she would consider the issue in accordance with national interests.

Seoul's Defense Ministry also said this week that THAAD will be helpful in defense against the North, a remark seen as a step forward, compared with previous statements that focused on denial of any discussions between the two countries on the issue.

It is no secret that the U.S. also wants to deploy a THAAD battery to South Korea, where some 28,500 American troops are stationed, to better defend against ever-growing threats from North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

But the issue has become one of the most sensitive for South Korea because China sees a potential THAAD deployment as a threat to their security interests, despite repeated assurances from Washington that the system is aimed only at deterring North Korean threats.

Seoul and Washington have maintained they have never held any formal consultations on the issue.

Asked about China's opposition, Harris said that any decision on the matter should be taken by Seoul and Washington and that "China's opinions are simply interesting."

Since taking over as PACOM commander in late May, Harris has consistently expressed concerns about North Korea, calling it the "greatest threat we face" and saying that concerns about the provocative nation keep him awake at night.

He reiterated such concerns during the interview.

"North Korea is the biggest threat, which is visceral and real. North Korea will present a threat not only to the peninsula but a threat to Japan, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland," the commander said.

Harris said the North's leader Kim Jong-un seeks to be a global player, but he has ended up "a global pariah" because of the nuclear test and other provocations.

Asked whether he believes Pyongyang has mastered miniaturization technology, the commander said he has to be ready for all scenarios.

"I don't play poker because I don't like to take risks and I'm not ready to risk the defense of our homeland against the possibility that North Korea might not be able to miniaturize or develop a long range weapon. I have to be ready for that," he said.

"My glass is always half empty. It's never half full because that's what I'm paid to do," he added.

After the North's nuclear test, the U.S. sent a nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bomber to fly over South Korea in a show of its commitment to Seoul and a warning to Pyongyang. Harris said the U.S. is considering deploying more strategic assets, including the recent departure of the Navy's John C. Stennis Strike Group to the western Pacific.

The commander also said that the Korea-U.S. alliance has contributed to the "rules-based order" in the region that has allowed South Korea and Japan to grow and flourish. He also called for greater three-way security cooperation between the Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

"If we face the same threat from North Korea, we have the same challenge from China and it's natural, operationally natural that the three countries work closely together," he said, adding that the three countries should conduct complex exercises as well by taking advantage of the systems they share, such as Aegis destroyers.

Harris also said that the strength of the Korea-U.S. alliance is underscored by the "quality of the people that we send to Korea," praising Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, as a "tremendous leader."

"We're both lucky to have him on the peninsula," he said.

Harris, who was born to an American father and Japanese mother, is the U.S. Navy's highest-ranking Asian American. His father was also a Navy sailor and served in the 1950-53 Korean War. After the war, his father lived in Korea from 1956 to 1958 to teach Korean sailors engineering.

"He taught me deep appreciation for the Korean people," the commander said. "So, I had this appreciation for Korea early on and I'm grateful to have this opportunity to have some impact, some effect on Koreans."

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