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South Korea’s THAAD crisis

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A Seoungju resident takes part in a protest against the government's decision on deploying a U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense unit in Seongju, in Seoul, South Korea, July 21, 2016. The head band reads

In Brief

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s unilateral decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system has sparked serious backlash and protests at home. Many South Korean voters argue that the THAAD’s powerful radar system would make the country a key military target.


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And the South Korean defence ministry, in vowing to minimise any impact from THAAD on citizens and the environment, has validated these concerns.

The irony of the THAAD deployment is that it cannot protect Seoul. Seoul is located over 200 kilometres from the proposed instalment location and thus well beyond the protected zone provided by the THAAD system. But it would certainly be enough to protect US troops stationed in Pyeongtaek near Seoul, which is the main reason for President Park meeting the US demands to deploy the THAAD system in the first place.

As Oh Young-jin, chief editorial writer for The Korea Times, reminded readers, the Seoul metro area was excluded from THAAD coverage because, ‘in the event of war, civilians are considered collateral with lower priority than military assets in the order of protection’.

As THAAD forms the core element of the United States’ multilayered defence program in the region, and is also geared toward defending US troops there, President Park’s decision has sparked regional controversy. China and Russia as well as North Korea have objected, and some commentators are envisaging the beginning of a ‘new Cold War’.

China, to begin with, is fuming. Since the official statement on 7 July to deploy THAAD, China has strongly objected to the decision, requesting that the South Korean government cancel the plan. China has also restricted the import of a wide variety of audio-visual K-pop music from South Korea. As China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, purchasing 26 per cent of all South Korean exports in 2015, such retaliation is a huge concern for the South Korean economy.

Prior to the THAAD announcement, China and Russia had issued a joint statement on 25 June, signed by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, which expressed concern over the unilateral deployment of antimissile systems all over the world. Such deployments, they said, were non-constructive and had negatively affected global and regional strategic balance, stability and security.

The possible deployment of the THAAD system in Northeast Asia, they argued, would severely infringe upon the strategic security interests of countries in the region. China and Russia regarded the planned deployment as a strategic action by the United States to put their military facilities within the range of US radars.

For its part, North Korea has responded in usual fashion by threatening to take ‘physical action’. Critics of the decision to deploy the THAAD system to South Korea see North Korea’s recent submarine-launched ballistic-missile test as such ‘physical action’ retaliation. A leading military arms specialist, Shin In-gyun, has also argued that North Korea’s brinkmanship strategy, focused mainly on the United States and Japan, will deepen.

Many in South Korea and Japan are also concerned about the strength of the US commitment to protect them from external attack. US credibility is being questioned due to the changing dynamics of US relations globally. South Korea and Japan, for example, have noted President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ warning — which stated that any attempt by Syria to move or use its chemical weapons would change his administration’s ‘calculus’ in the region.

Some members of South Korea’s government have called for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, arguing that this will deter a North Korean attack and push China to increase pressure on its ‘small brother’ to roll back its weapons programs.

If South Korea were to pursue this path, Japan could also possibly follow suit, especially in view of China’s aggressive claim to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Japan could quickly develop nuclear weapons if it decided to do so, as it has an enormous stockpile of separated plutonium and the technical know-how. But, both countries would risk their relationship with the United States and possibly expose themselves to economic and energy sanctions.

More significantly, the implications of a nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula would be disastrous for the region, especially if the logic of striking first to eliminate the other’s capability were to prevail. Rather, alternative solutions are needed, especially by building trust not only between the two Koreas but between the United States and China, as both countries are deeply suspicious of each other’s ambitions regarding the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.

THAAD’s effectiveness is difficult to prove. With genuinely creative ideas and an approach based either on trust-building or forward-looking negotiation, South Korea might be able to find ways to solve this untenable dilemma without necessarily being caught up in the hegemony game being played out by the United States and China. But that is a big challenge.

Hyung-A Kim is Associate Professor of Korean Politics at The Australian National University.

This article was first published here on Asian Currents.

3 responses to “South Korea’s THAAD crisis”

  1. If this assessment of THADD is correct, President Park made a decision that makes things worse rather than better. This system offers no clear protection to the residents of Seoul while threatening the North, China, and Russia. I have read somewhere that the DPRK has huge numbers of conventional artillery aimed at Seoul which is perilously close to the border. THADD could do nothing to combat this threat anyway.

    What kind of ‘genuinely creative ideas’ or ‘approach based on trust building or future looking negotiation’ does the author have in mind? As another analyst noted last July in EAF all this will probably have to await the outcome of the Nov election in the USA and the one coming up in S Korea next year. Ie, different leaders with hopefully a different perspective will have to be in place. That is a long time to wait in a situation that is as fluid, if not volatile, as this one. I hope I am wrong but things could could a lot worse before there is any prospect of them getting better.

  2. Hyung-A Kim emphasises THAAD coverage in S. Korea would not cover Seoul and quotes a The Korea Times report indicating that military targets have a higher priority in US strategic planning and in determining where the THAAD system would be deployed.

    This line of analysis is, at best, misleading. See on the North Korea News website which makes it quite clear why: (A) Seoul would be a lower priority target for N Korean nuclear planners due to radiation subsequently blanketing much of the DPRK and (B) because the North Korean artillery deployments are much more relevant to the Seoul component in any conflict scenario.

    • In emphasizing that the proposed THAAD coverage in South Korea would not cover Seoul I had, of course, no intention of misleading readers. While North Korean concerns about radiation’s blanketing much of North Korea subsequent to a nuclear attack on Seoul may be valid, Seoul nevertheless remains a key military target for the North, and so the North Korean artillery deployments will be very relevant to their focus on Seoul in any conflict scenario. To counter this scenario, the ROK military has indicated its intention to deploy ground-to-air missiles close to Seoul to protect the capital from North Korean missiles among other military upgrade plans, including the upgrading the air-defence system in the Seoul area with Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-3 low-altitude missiles by 2020. Moreover, South Korea may well consider purchasing its own THAAD system to provide genuine national coverage into the future. I did not include this aspect of the THAAD deployment decision, as I wanted to focus on the regional security and international implications of this decision, not the possible complementary action by the ROK military to protect Seoul that has not yet been determined.

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