Two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors are launched during a successful intercept test
Two weeks ago, North Korea fired several short-range ballistic missiles in response to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s visit to Seoul. Along with his South Korean counterpart, Secretary Carter denied the visit’s relation to the proposed installment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. THAAD is the U.S. Army’s solution to short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles – much like those fired recently.
The prospect of a U.S.-owned-and-operated missile defense system on the Korean peninsula has stirred controversy within the international community. While the United States and South Korea cite the recent North Korean maneuvers as ample reason to establish a THAAD network on the peninsula, China and Russia maintain that THAAD would likely destabilize the region, as demonstrated by the same evidence: the “provoked” increase in North Korean aggression.
China has spoken adamantly against the deployment of THAAD on the peninsula, and, spurred by increased trade, South Korea has been careful to not damage its bilateral ties with its larger neighbor. Seoul has adopted a stance of “strategic ambiguity” regarding THAAD and the United States. Media has referred to this policy as the “three No’s” – “No request, No consultation, and No decision,” a play off of the government’s response to media inquiries. However, this has not stopped individual lawmakers and spokespersons from making veiled remarks on the matter.
One spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Defense noted that, while generally “a neighboring country can have its own opinion on the possible deployment of the THAAD system here by the U.S…it should not try to influence [South Korean] security policy.” Needless to say, it was not difficult for China to catch wind of which “neighboring country” the spokesman was referring to. In lieu of the South Korean statement, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated in an equally indirect manner that “countries must neither pursue their own security interests at the expense of others’ nor undermine regional peace and stability…We hope that the relevant countries would be prudent in making this kind of decision.”
“The prospect of a U.S.-owned-and-operated missile defense system on the Korean peninsula has stirred controversy within the international community.”
This issue has gone so far as to cause a shift in South Korean policy towards its northern counterpart – at least, in the realm of semantics. North Korea officially recognized itself as a nuclear power three years ago, but the international community has rightfully hesitated in agreeing with the label in light of diplomatic talks centered on North Korea’s denuclearization. However, in the midst of ongoing conversation on THAAD, Kim Moo-sung, chairman of the legislative majority, Saenuri party, implied that North Korea could indeed be recognized as a nuclear power. “Internationally, a country can be recognized as a nuclear power if it carries out two to three nuclear tests,” Kim Moo-sung said. This statement provides further justification for expanded missile defense systems within South Korea, as attempts to placate North Korea’s advances in nuclear technology have seemingly failed – a failure that comes as a tough pill to swallow for both the U.S. and South Korea.
Considering the benefits that THAAD could confer upon South Korean national security, it is not difficult to discern where South Korean interests truly lie. Despite Seoul’s current stance of “strategic ambiguity,” it is hard to ignore how the THAAD system alone is a substantial investment of $800m, and one that the United States is perfectly willing to make. By placing such security systems in the hands of its allies, the United States hopes to reduce the long-term need for U.S. armed forces in the region, a shift in responsibility which would ultimately benefit America’s defense budget.
While it is true that South Korea is stuck between Beijing and Washington, South Korean leadership should not take this as a disadvantage. In fact, Seoul should abandon its coy tactics and speak frankly with Beijing. In the current international climate, China’s fears of the THAAD system stem from competition with the United States. When coupled with the U.S. “X-band radar system” established in Japan last fall, China would face a tri-lateral defense network, potentially stymieing its own ability to project military power. Although unlikely for the foreseeable future, China is disconcerted by the idea of being bested by the United States in an armed conflict.
But when it comes down to it, this conflict, along with South Korea’s desire for “strategic ambiguity,” are truly petty when compared to the safety of the 50 million individuals in South Korea alone – over 750,000 of whom are Chinese nationals. Instead of fearing for one’s own ability to project power against allies, these governments must look towards safeguarding its citizens against the violence of certain unpredictable nuclear states.