(ATTN: ADDS more comments, info in paras 4, 10-12)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Feb. 14 (Yonhap) -- No discussions have taken place with the United States about the possibility of moving THAAD missile interceptor launchers away from their battery in central South Korea to other parts of the country, the defense ministry said Friday.
Earlier, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency hinted at the possibility of separating the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit's launchers in the central county of Seongju in order to secure greater flexibility in its operation.
It is part of the U.S. plan to upgrade its seven THAAD batteries and related training equipment deployed around the world, for which the U.S. government sought a US$1 billion budget for next year. One of the batteries is a full six-launcher THAAD unit installed in Seongju in 2017-2018.
The relocation idea would meet strong opposition from local residents, and could spark the ire of China, which has long railed against the THAAD deployment, saying that the system could be used to spy on the country and hurts its national security interests.
On Friday, Seoul's defense ministry spokesperson, Choi Hyun-soo, said that Seoul and Washington "have never discussed such a matter as moving (the battery or launchers) outside the Seongju base."
While noting that the Seoul government was "briefed by the U.S. side on its work to improve THAAD capabilities," the spokesperson simply said it "will take time before plans are realized." She did not elaborate.
U.S. Forces Korea was not immediately available for comments on the matter.
During a press briefing on the 2021 defense budget on Monday, U.S. missile agency director, Vice Adm. Jon Hill, said, "If you can separate the launchers away from the battery, that gives you a lot of flexibility on the peninsula.
"So you could put the battery further back, you can move the radar back, you can put the launchers forward, you can bring in additional launchers. And so that capability is not in a typical THAAD battery today," he said.
The defense ministry also dismissed speculation that the U.S. is to deploy more launchers in South Korea, saying that the move, if any such scheme existed, could not be pursued by the U.S. alone.
"Regarding USFK's THAAD system upgrades, the (South Korean) government has not been notified of any plan for additional launchers or interceptors. We also understand that the U.S. side does not have plans for further deployment," the ministry said in a release.
Any additional measure regarding the THAAD system in Seongju "is subject to prior discussions between South Korea and the U.S.," it added.
The THAAD deployment has been one of the most sensitive diplomatic issues for South Korea, as China has taken economic retaliatory measures for Seoul's hosting of the battery. Seoul and Washington have stressed that the system aims only to better cope with the growing missile threats posed by North Korea.