Speculation is mounting whether the government has agreed a deal with Washington to take part in the U.S.-led missile defense program in exchange for another delay in the handover of full control of South Korean troops.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin fanned speculation Monday by telling a National Assembly audit that the military is hoping to buy SM-3 interceptor missiles that could destroy North Korean ballistic missiles. The SM-3 missiles constitute the core of the U.S.-led missile defense shield.
All the signs are that the government is growing less reluctant to join the missile defense program, which China is extremely wary of. At the annual South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting on Oct. 2, the Defense Ministry asked the U.S. for another delay in the troop control handover which has already been postponed from 2012 until 2015.
The two sides agreed to leave the decision until the first half of 2014 after assessing the South Korean military's ability to thwart a North Korean nuclear attack. That the agreement was reached at a time of drastic defense cuts in the U.S. led to speculation that there must have been some sort of quid-pro-quo deal.
Washington wants Seoul to join the missile defense program, which is aimed chiefly at keeping China in check, to gain an early edge in thwarting any North Korean attack aimed at the continental U.S. Japan is already part of the program.
Before the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said missile defense is crucial if Korea is to take full control of its own troops, but added that it is not necessary for the missile defense systems in the U.S. and South Korea to be "identical as long as they are interoperable."
The head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, late last month stressed the need for a concerted missile defense in the region, warning that North Korea's ballistic missiles threaten not only the Korean Peninsula but regional security as a whole.
The Defense Ministry in a statement on Tuesday denied it was considering joining the missile defense program or that the U.S. had asked it to.