WASHINGTON — The U.S. intends to deploy a missile defense system in South Korea "as soon as possible" to counter the threat from North Korea despite opposition from China, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia said Tuesday.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said he believes South Korea is firmly committed to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD system. He told a congressional hearing the system is purely defensive and is not aimed at China but at North Korea.

The plans have complicated South Korea's efforts to foster warmer ties with China, which traditionally has had closer ties with North Korea, and have added to tensions between Washington and Beijing as well. Beijing says the system's radar could reach into Chinese territory.

Seoul and Washington began formal talks on THAAD earlier this year. Russel did not specify when the deployment would happen, but said "given the accelerated pace of North Korea's missile tests, we intend to deploy on an accelerated basis, I would say, as soon as possible."

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from a THAAD battery located on Wake Island, during Flight Test Operational (FTO)-02 Event 2a, conducted Nov. 1, 2015. During the test, the THAAD system successfully intercepted two air-launched ballistic missile targets.

Photo Credit: Ben Listerman/Missile Defense Agency

North Korea has conducted two nuclear test explosions this year, and the latest one, on Sept. 9, was its largest to date, deepening worries that it is honing a capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead. It has also conducted 22 ballistic missile test launches this year, the U.S. says.

Tuesday's hearing of a House panel overseeing foreign policy toward Asia examined the state of cooperation South Korea and Japan — close U.S. allies that face a mutual threat from neighboring North Korea but sharp historical differences. Lawmakers welcomed signs of improved relations between them.

But Republican Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama said that the U.S. is heavily burdened by debt, and pressed Russel on whether a reduction in the billions that it spends on defending Japan and South Korea might compel them to be more self-sufficient and spend more on their own defense.

Russel conceded "it might have that effect," but argued it would have a very destructive impact on regional stability and would open the door to China asserting itself more.

The U.S. has a total of nearly 80,000 troops based in Japan and South Korea, the backbone of its military presence in Asia. The Obama administration has sought to strengthen these and other alliances, in part to counter the rise of China in a region of growing economic importance.

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