WASHINGTON -- China should not be concerned if the U.S. deploys an advanced missile defense system in South Korea to counter the threat from a nuclear North Korea, a U.S. military commander said Thursday.
Commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, told a congressional hearing that if employed, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system would be focused on the defense of the Korean Peninsula and would not have "any influence beyond that."
Pacific forces commander Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear said a potential deployment of THAAD on the peninsula was under discussion — to add to one that is on the U.S. territory of Guam. Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "The decision process is underway right now."
Scaparrotti clarified after the hearing there has been no formal discussion or decision between South Korea and the U.S. on the matter, and he was referring political and strategic factors that would be considered by the Defense Department in making its decision.
It's a sensitive topic in South Korea. China has publicized its opposition to a THAAD deployment there.
Relations between Seoul and Beijing have grown closer in recent years, amid Chinese dismay over its wayward ally, North Korea.
Asked about China's opposition to a THAAD deployment, Scaparrotti said: "Personally, I think this is decision for South Korea, having to do with the defense of their country, and from my perspective as a commander there, defense of our troops."
The U.S. has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea to deter North Korea. Both commanders said they must assume that North Korea has the capability, albeit an untested one, to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon — a threat to the U.S.
"All the indications are that we have to be prepared to defend the homeland from it, and we're taking actions to do that," Locklear said.
U.S. officials are most concerned about a long-range missile designated as the KN-08 that has been displayed in military parades in Pyongyang. The KN-08 is said to be capable of being launched from a road-mobile vehicle and would therefore be difficult to monitor via satellite.
North Korea has hundreds of shorter-range missiles that can reach targets in South Korea and Japan.