South Korea has made no decision on whether to allow the United States to deploy an advanced missile defense battery to South Korea, an official said Wednesday, in what could be the latest attempt to maintain strategic ambiguity over an issue that may hurt its ties with either the U.S. or China.
Presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters that there was no request from the U.S. to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to South Korea.
“As there was no request, there were no consultations (between the two countries) and no decision has been made,” Min said.
His comments illustrated South Korea’s deepening trouble to keep strategic ambiguity over the possible deployment of a THAAD battery that has emerged as a key source of tension with China, its largest trading partner.
THAAD is designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in their terminal stage using a hit-to-kill program.
Washington says a THAAD battery is a purely defensive system designed only to counter ballistic missile threats from North Korea.
Still, China has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the possible deployment of a THAAD battery here as its radar system can monitor military facilities in China.
In November, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea, Qiu Guohong, warned that if South Korea allows the U.S. to deploy the THAAD battery on its soil, it would hurt Seoul-Beijing relations.
South Korea has long been walking a diplomatic tight rope between the U.S., Seoul’s key ally, and China over the sensitive issue. South Korea is concerned that its relations with the U.S. or China could sour in either case.
Min’s comments came two days after Yoo Seong-min, floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, said he will forge his party’s consensus over the controversial issue by holding a meeting of lawmakers later this month.
Yoo said a possible heated debate on the issue is the duty of the party as it is a matter of survival for South Korea.
The ruling party appears to be split over the issue, with some lawmakers believed to be close to President Park Geun-hye favoring strategic ambiguity and a low-profile approach to the issue.
Meanwhile, some activists accused the ruling party of pushing for the deployment of a THAAD battery with South Korean troops and U.S. troops in South Korea, claiming the deployment of the missile defense system would hurt relations with China and Russia.
South Korea has long been under security threats posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs. The country, including its capital city of Seoul with more than 10 million people, is within striking distance of North Korea’s missiles.
South Korea’s defense ministry said it has no plan to buy a THAAD battery from the U.S., noting that Seoul plans to set up its own missile defense system to shield the country against North Korea’s ballistic missiles.
Still, South Korean officials have said a THAAD battery, if deployed by U.S. troops in South Korea, could be helpful in the country’s security and defense.
About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrence against North Korea.