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South Korea bolsters missile shield as fears rise of ICBM launch

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, meets with President Donald Trump at Trump's Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

Four launchers for a U.S. missile shield arrived at a military base in South Korea on Thursday, as Seoul warned North Korea may launch a new missile as soon as this weekend.

South Korea had said already that Pyongyang may be gearing up for another rocket test in the aftermath of its nuclear detonation on Sunday, as it seeks to improve the capacity of its intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said at a conference in Seoul on Thursday that North Korea may launch its next missile on Saturday — the anniversary of its founding — adding there isn’t much time until the regime becomes a fully nuclear-armed state. The yen strengthened on Lee’s remarks.

South Korea has said the launchers for the U.S. missile defense system known as Thaad would be installed in the face of the growing threat from Pyongyang. The move has already drawn a rebuke from China, which says Thaad could upset the regional security balance and be used against its own missile systems.

The deployment of Thaad “does not help addressing the security concerns of relevant countries,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said at a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday. “It will only severely undermine the strategic balance in the region, jeopardize strategic and security interests of the regional countries, including China, aggravate the tension and confrontation, and further complicate the Peninsular issue.”

On coming to power in May, President Moon Jae-in opposed the early installation of the shield. But North Korea’s ICBM launches in July prompted him to order his government to discuss deployment of the four remaining launchers at the Seongju military base, 220 kilometers (136 miles) southeast of Seoul.

Moon is in Vladivostok, Russia, where he met Thursday morning with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. On Wednesday, Moon sought to find common ground with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on sanctions, though Putin opposes further penalties on the regime. Putin and Abe are set to meet later Thursday.

The initial decision by Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye to install Thaad led China to slap painful economic penalties on South Korea. It ordered travel agencies to stop selling tour packages to South Korea and took steps against Lotte Group, one of South Korea’s largest family-run conglomerates, which offered up the land that hosts Thaad’s missile battery.

There were 2.3 million fewer Chinese tourists in the five months through July from the same period last year.

The system, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is designed to destroy short-and-medium-range ballistic missiles at high altitudes in their “terminal” phase, as they descend. It’s different from conventional defense missiles, which seek to get close to a target and self-detonate to damage or deflect the threat.

The U.S. is circulating a draft resolution at the United Nations that would bar crude oil shipments to North Korea, ban the nation’s exports of textiles and prohibit employment of its guest workers by other countries, according to a diplomat at the world body.

The proposal, which also calls for freezing the assets of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has been circulated to the 15 members of the Security Council, according to the diplomat, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations. The U.S. has said it wants the council to take up tougher sanctions at a meeting Monday.

The bid for the toughest penalties yet against North Korea comes despite renewed warnings against such moves by the leaders of China and Russia, which have veto power in the Security Council. U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke for 45 minutes Wednesday amid Pyongyang’s stepped-up pace of nuclear and missile tests.

“We will not be putting up with what’s happening in North Korea,” Trump told reporters Wednesday after the conversation. The two leaders had a “very, very frank and very strong call,” he added. Asked about possible U.S. military action, the president said “That’s not our first choice, but we’ll see what happens.”


(Shinhye Kang Kambiz Foroohar and Seyoon Kim contributed to this report.)


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