North Korea’s latest rocket launch might kick off a buildup of US missile defence systems in Asia, US officials and missile defence experts said, something that could further strain US-China ties and also hurt relations between Beijing and Seoul.
North Korea says it put a satellite into orbit on Sunday, but the United States and its allies see the launch as cover for Pyongyang’s development of ballistic missile technology that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon.
Washington sought to reassure its allies South Korea and Japan of its commitment to their defence after the launch, which followed a North Korean nuclear test on January 6.
The United States and South Korea said they would begin formal talks about deploying the sophisticated Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, to the Korean peninsula “at the earliest possible date.”
South Korea had been reluctant to publicly discuss the possibility due to worries about upsetting China, its biggest trading partner.
Beijing, at odds with the United States over Washington’s reaction to its building of artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, quickly expressed “deep concern” about a system whose radar could penetrate Chinese territory.
China had made its position clear to Seoul and Washington, the Foreign Ministry said.
“When pursuing its own security, one country should not impair others’ security interests,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.
But the North Korean rocket launch, on top of January’s nuclear test, could be a “tipping point” for South Korea and win over parts of Seoul’s political establishment that remain wary of such a move, a US official said.
South Korea and the United States said that if THAAD was deployed to South Korea, it would be focused only on North Korea.
An editorial in the Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, called that assurance “feeble”.