The United States will deploy a sophisticated anti-missile defense system to Guam in response to North Korean threats to U.S. military bases in the Pacific, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) is a relatively new land-based system designed to destroy incoming short, medium and intermediate-range missiles by crashing into them in the air. Only two batteries of the system, produced by Lockheed Martin, are currently deployed, both at Fort Bliss, Tex.
A Pentagon statement said deployment in Guam was expected “in the coming weeks as a precautionary move to strengthen our regional defense posture against the North Korean regional ballistic missile threat.”
The announcement followed North Korea’s banning of South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex near the demilitarized zone. Obama administration officials had said earlier that the move would signal a more serious crisis beyond the bellicose rhetoric issued by North Korea over the past several weeks.
The current crisis began with North Korea’s long-range rocket launch in December and underground nuclear test in February, provoking tighter United Nations sanctions and the deployment of U.S. nuclear-capable stealth bombers to the peninsula as part of military exercises with South Korea.
On Tuesday, North Korea announced it would restart a nuclear reactor, shuttered in 2007, that is capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, and declared a “state of war” in the peninsula.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday called the North Korean actions a “real and clear danger and threat” to the United States’ allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. “They have nuclear capacity now. They have missile delivery capacity now.”
Hagel, in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, specifically cited “the threats that the North Koreans have leveled directly at the United States regarding our base in Guam, threatened Hawaii, threatened the West Coast of the United States.” “We have to take those threats seriously,” he said.
Last month, Hagel said the military will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska over the next three years to counter the threat of long-range North Korean missiles.
In addition to the two THAAD batteries deployed at Fort Bliss, the Pentagon agreed in late 2011 to sell two batteries to the United Arab Emirates as part of a $16 billion package of U.S. defense equipment to the UAE and Qatar designed to boost Persian Gulf defenses against the threat from Iran. Last summer, Lockheed Martin announced the military’s Missile Defense Agency had contracted it to build a fifth battery, to be completed in 2015.
It was unclear whether the decision to deploy the THAAD system to Guam would be through a transfer from Fort Bliss or delay of the UAE delivery.
The Pentagon declined to specify where the systems would come from. “Though we do have a limited number of THAAD units available for deployment, we are quite confident in our ability to rapidly redeploy this system as dictated by threat levels,” said Defense Department spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush.
The THAAD missile has an estimated range of about 120 miles and was designed as one element in an integrated defense system that includes the Aegis missile for long-range threats and the short-range Patriot missile.
North Korea’s move to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex — six miles north of the heavily fortified border with South Korea — has long stood as a near-untouchable symbol of cooperation between the two sides of the peninsula, operated even during a pair of fatal 2010 attacks launched by the North on the South.
Some economists estimate that the complex generates between $20 million and $100 million a year for the cash-starved North Korean economy. They note that, for now, the North has not shut the complex.
On Wednesday morning, the North banned 179 South Koreans from making their daily cross-border trip to the site. South Korea said 861 southern workers were already at the complex, and many had opted to stay to continue operations. About 120 South Korean businesses operate there, according to a South Korean government spokesman. The North banned entry once before for several days in 2009 during joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post. Chico Harlan in Seoul contributed to this report.
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