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Asia

Proposed missile shield in South Korea shrouded in controversy

North Korea sees the proposal to deploy a US missile defense system in South Korea as a further provocation by Washington. DW takes a look at how the plans may impact the region.

For years, North Korea had wanted to negotiate a peace treaty with the US to formally end the Korean War, which ended with an armistice in 1953. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the US agreed to talks late last year. However, Pyongyang rejected the offer because Washington had insisted that the discussion of nuclear arms be on the agenda.

On January 6, North Korea allegedly detonated its first hydrogen bomb. On February 7, the regime launched a long-range missile, claiming it was carrying a satellite. But most countries saw it as a threatening gesture of the secretive country's military capabilities.

Since then, the gap between the former warring parties has once again deepened. The US sent Patriot missiles and B-52 long-range bombers to South Korea. Moreover, F-22 stealth bombers flew over the US military base in Osan.

With such gestures in the past, the United States had demonstrated its military power. But this time around, the US and its South Korean ally will go one step further with their biggest annual spring maneuvers.

Some 15,000 US soldiers - about a quarter more than last year - will take part in "Foal Eagle," a joint military exercise set to last from March 7 to late April. Even more, the South Korean army will increase its forces to 290,000. And the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier John C. Stennis will participate for the first time in the combined exercise, a move which Pyongyang views as a preparation for an invasion.

Both militaries will practice maneuvers such as landing on beaches and building bridges.

South Korean Marine Corps participate in a practice for a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang

North Korea sees the joint military exercises between the US and South Korea as a threat

Outlying Spring maneuver bigger than usual

The US and South Korea have repeatedly emphasized the defensive nature of the maneuvers, but North Korea has alternatively reacted with threats or inducements.

In 2015, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had called on its armed forces to prepare for war. In 2014, he even threatened the US with nuclear war.

In January 2015, the regime in Pyongyang offered to temporarily suspend nuclear tests if the US were to halt its military maneuvers with South Korea. But this year, tensions are expected to rise even further as the US Congress leveled more sanctions against North Korea in response to the latest nuclear and missile test. In particular, a tighter watch would be kept on money launders.

In addition, South Korea and the US have been engaged in serious negotiations since February on deploying a new anti-missile shield in the South called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Until now, the Seoul's defense has relied on shooting down North Korean missiles at low altitude. But the THAAD system, built by US firms Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, might change this as it is designed to engage enemy missiles at high altitude.

The system would essentially create a second layer of protection for all of South Korea, and shoot down any North Korean missiles aimed at the US. Because of Pyongyang's missile tests in early February, the government and opposition parties in Seoul have all demanded the introduction of THAAD ahead of the South Korean parliamentary elections in April. North Korea reacted angrily, "The deployment would trigger a new Cold War in the Asia-Pacific region," warned the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun.

A set of Patriot missiles of South Korean military is seen deployed at an unidentified location in Seoul

South Korea no longer wants to leave its Patriot missile defense systems on the outskirts of Seoul

New missile system welcomed in South Korea

This statement is not without rhyme or reason, as China and Russia also oppose the missile shield. China's state news agency Xinhua said the defense system is detrimental to the solution of the nuclear situation on the Korean peninsula and could trigger an arms race in the region.

"The defense system could be a fuse instead of a protection system, because it would probably irritate the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, which already feels insecure about the hostile US policy," Xinhua wrote.

Russia made similar statements. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow feared an escalation of the arms race in Northeast Asia would be an impediment to resolving the nuclear issue. The Ministry said that while Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests are to be condemned, the US is now using the situation to expand its global missile defense system.

The US Department of Defense tried to dispel Chinese and North Korean concerns by saying that the missile defense system "is focused exclusively on North Korea and strengthens the existing defense systems."

A North Korean long-range rocket is launched

North Korea claims its long-range missile launch was designed to put a satellite into orbit

US knows China's concern

According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, the US is trying to engange in direct talks with China to explain the technical details of the missile shield. The US does not want to undermine the security interests of Beijing, although the system's radar could reach into Chinese territory.