Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin on Wednesday played down suspicions that South Korea is about to join the U.S.-led missile defense program by the back door.
Kim told reporters South Korea "clearly will not participate in the U.S. missile defense program." He said the military is not currently considering purchase of SM-3 or THAAD interceptor missiles that form the core of the program.
The SM-3 can destroy North Korean ballistic missiles at an altitude of 150 km and the THAAD at a lower altitude of 100 km.
This contradicts confusing signals sent by Defense Ministry officials this week. On Monday, a senior ministry official said that the military is "considering whether the SM-3 is necessary for the South Korean air missile defense system," and a ministry spokesman on Tuesday hinted at purchase of THAAD missiles, saying the SM-3 missile does not fit Seoul's strategy of "low-altitude defense."
Kim convened an ad-hoc press conference Wednesday amid noisy speculation that the government is trying to smuggle the decision past the public.
He said the "goals and scope" of the missile defense systems of South Korea and the U.S. are different, explaining that the U.S. system is designed to cover a massive area including the American mainland, Hawaii and the Pacific, while South Korea's missile defense is only to counter North Korean missiles.
Kim also denied that the U.S. pressured Seoul to join the missile defense shield in return for another delay in the handover of full operational control of troops to Seoul. "There was no request about the missile defense at all," Kim said when asked about some sort of quid-pro-quo deal at the annual South Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting on Oct. 2.
The handover has already been postponed from 2012 until 2015.
Asked whether the ministry is flip-flopping over the SM-3 or THAAD missiles, Kim said each branch of the military "could have a say in which interceptor system is adequate for the Korean Peninsula," but added that no decisions had been made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the ministry.