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After North Korea's Rocket Launch, U.S. And Allies Eye Missile Defense


We wanted to bring you up-to-date on some news from the Korean Peninsula. Early Sunday morning, North Korea launched a long-range rocket and announced plans to launch more satellites. The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the move, saying Sunday they plan to take significant measures to respond. The rocket launch seems to have pushed South Korea passed a tipping point. South Korea had been considering upgrading its missile-defense systems at the risk of upsetting long-time ally and neighbor China. Now we hear that South Korea says they're moving forward on talks to deploy the so-called Terminal High Altitude Defense system. We wanted to hear more, so we've reached out to Victor Cha, senior advisor and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's with us now from Maryland. Thank you, Mr. Cha. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

VICTOR CHA: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: First of all, could you explain what this Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD system is and why it's so significant that South Korea has decided to talk about moving forward with it?

CHA: Well, first of all, the system is one of the United States' most advanced missile-defense systems in terms of a ground-based interceptor in and around East Asia. Essentially, it allows the United States to be able to track a missile from North Korea from its launch through its trajectory and then fly a missile at it that would hit it in the air. Why it's so significant for Korea is because Korea doesn't have this capability. And they have been interested in it, but the Chinese have been trying to discourage them from allowing the United States to put a THAAD battery on the Korean Peninsula 'cause the Chinese feel like it could be used against their missiles rather than North Korea. So in many ways they've been using their economic weight to try to squeeze South Korea into not having discussions on this system. But the decision today - it appears because of the North Korean missile test - is that South Korea is going to go ahead with this, despite the fact that it may upset China.

MARTIN: And tell me, if you would, a little bit more about the launch of this rocket. What do you think it says about North Korea's intentions?

CHA: Well, when I heard that they had announced the launch window, I had a feeling it was coming fairly soon. I don't know that it was intentional; it was on exactly the day, one month after the fourth nuclear test. And from all reports, it looks as though North Korea has perfected the capability to put a payload vehicle into orbit, which is a very big step in terms of advanced international intercontinental-ballistic-missile capability. We don't know whether their accuracy is very good or whether they can fly a warhead to a target. But they've clearly made a very important step forward with this as well as with the fourth nuclear test last month.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what their ultimate ambition is in developing this program?

CHA: I don't think they just want to have a couple of bombs in the basement. They want to be a full advanced, modern nuclear weapons state so that they can either protect themselves from the United States or coerce others. They see it, I think, as the ultimate security blanket. And the danger, of course, is once they feel secure, what sort of activities they're going to undertake to coerce others to give them things that they want because this program is developing at the expense of food, industry, all the other things that a normal nation state would be engaged in.

MARTIN: That's Victor Cha. He was director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Professor Cha, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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