Missile Defense: China and the US in Korea

Korea, yet again, tests its nth missile, South Korea augments its security under the aegis of the United States, and China raises its eyebrows over US involvement while keeping a wary eye on North Korea. As this is how the story goes, it should come as no surprise that South Korea and the United States have cooperated to upgrade South Korea’s defense systems to counter threats from Pyongyang, which has this year tested two nuclear weapons and about 30 ballistic missiles. 

The deployment of South Korea’s latest defense system however, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-ballistics missile system designed by the United States, has created unprecedented political uproar on all sides. Internationally, the most vociferous opposition has come from China. It is curious that Beijing, as a foreign power, is aggressively intervening in South Korea’s national security concerns and is penalizing South Korea for acting against its interest. So far, Beijing has banned imports of Korean products and halted tour groups to Korea. The Lotte Group, a Korean conglomerate that approved a land-swap deal with the Korean government that would allow THAAD to be installed in Seongju, has been the target of economic retaliation by Chinese authorities, as well as Chinese consumers who have protested in front of Korean stores and boycotted their products. 

This is not to say that the United States has been passively watching from the sidelines. With the United State’s backing, the deployment of THAAD has been accelerated, occurring several months earlier than anticipated. Although Commander General Vincent Brooks initially estimated THAAD’s deployment sometime in the summer of 2017, some of the system’s components have already arrived in Korea—just one day after North Korea test-fired four ballistic missiles. Additionally, President Donald Trump has recently suggested that the United States would act unilaterally to “solve” the North Korean problem should China fail to do so. 

The big question then is, why? Why is China mad about THAAD while the United States is mad for THAAD? Broadly speaking, this is a power struggle between the United States and China for influence in Northeast Asia. Historically, Korea has often been the battleground for major powers due to its strategic geographical location. However, in order to answer why this particular military defense system update has triggered a serious diplomatic standoff, we must look at the unique political situation in both South Korea and abroad. 

Domestically, South Korea is still recovering from a bizarre scandal that led to the impeachment of former-President Park Geun-Hye. Hence, an argument can be made that both China and the United States are capitalizing on South Korea’s special elections. Naturally, relations with China and the United States are dominating debates in the South Korean presidential campaign, as leading candidates clash over their stances on the deployment of THAAD. With the ousting of former-President Geun-Hye, whose administration agreed to deploy THAAD, South Korea must review the debate over THAAD’s necessity and effectiveness in protecting the country. The monetary costs of this system and the ramifications of harming relations with one of South Korea’s biggest trade partners—China—is at the forefront of the debate. Come voting time, South Korean citizens must seriously consider how any new administration will balance South Korea’s military interests with those of the United States and with its economic relationship with China. Internationally, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has quickened the pace of nuclear missile testing, raising tensions on the peninsula. Additionally, the election of American President Donald Trump has rapidly transformed US foreign relations in regards to China and Russia, undoubtedly impacting the geopolitical landscape throughout Northeast Asia. 

What is THAAD? 

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is an anti-ballistic missile system designed by the US defense company Lockheed Martin, which shoots down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, two types of weapons that North Korea claims to possess. Currently, South Korea is equipped with the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) system, which has an operational range of 20-35 kilometers and can only intercept short-range missiles. THAAD, in contrast, has an operational range of 200 kilometers and an altitude of 150 kilometers. South Korea has thus far chosen to install only one THAAD battery in Seongju, whose radius of protection does not include the capital city of Seoul. According to the National Defense Ministry, the full system would cost around $1.24 billion, though the Ministry does not specify the number of batteries to be installed. 

Each THAAD system is comprised of five main components: radars, interceptors, a fire control unit and communications support equipment, and a launcher. The radar detects enemy missiles and relays the information to command and control. Those manning the system then instruct the launch of an interceptor, which destroys the incoming missile in its terminal phase of flight. This system relies solely on a hit-to-kill technology, or kinetic energy, to destroy the incoming missile. 

THAAD’s Not What China Likes

Chinese officials have objected to THAAD’s implementation, suspicious that the United States has supported the system’s construction in order to monitor China’s military movements. Indeed, part of the THAAD system requires the installation of an AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar, which China worries might be used as a long-detection range to survey Chinese military actions and gain valuable information about the position and makeup of its strategic military apparatus. However, this opposition is questionable because two AN/TPY-2 radars with better capabilities have already been installed in Japan and Taiwan, but China has staged a much stronger opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. Furthermore, Michael Ellemen, a missile-defense expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, insists that, even though the THAAD radar in South Korea could detect Chinese missiles, the advantage would be “quite marginal.” 

A second objection is that THAAD, which is designed to intercept short- and middle-range ballistic missiles, would be ineffective because Seoul is incredibly close to North Korean missile launchers. The implication, therefore, is that THAAD is actually aimed at Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), undermining China’s deterrence capability and tipping the balance of power in the region in favor of the United States. However, Chinese ICBM launchers are beyond the maximum interceptor range of THAAD. Furthermore, the radar in South Korea will be set up in “terminal” rather than “look” mode. Shifting configurations requires a complete software change and five hours to switch modes, which would be a dangerous move should an immediate threat from North Korea materialize. 

From a military viewpoint, it is clear that THAAD is not a direct and serious threat to China’s military strategy. So why has China voiced such strong opposition? The real reason lies in what THAAD symbolizes. To begin, China opposes any attempt by Washington to encircle and limit its sphere of influence. Furthermore, South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD demonstrates the strengthening of the US alliance network in Northeast Asia and highlights China’s failure to remove South Korea from 

America’s security orbit. THAAD also symbolizes Seoul’s reaffirmation of Washington as its primary security ally, rather than Beijing. Perhaps of even greater concern is that THAAD could symbolize the beginning of a trilateral s e curity alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Although South Korean and Japanese relations have long been mired in divisive disputes stemming from Japan’s war crimes against its former colony, Japan’s recent apology for its exploitation of Chinese women forced into sexual slavery in World War II suggests warming relations. Such an alliance would significantly undermine China’s regional ambitions and its competition with the United States. 

The Geopolitical Situation: The China-US Summit, Syria, and South Korean Elections

The controversy surrounding THAAD cannot be understood without looking at the international geopolitical landscape. Most notably, with Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, we have witnessed the repositioning of America’s strategic alliance with China and Russia. However, the details of the new president’s foreign policy stances are still unclear and even contradictory. Just recently, for example, we have seen a deviation from his “America First” policy in the military action undertaken against the Assad regime in Syria in response to an alleged chemical attack. Curiously, Trump’s decision to authorize a missile strike on a Syrian government airfield coincides with the highly anticipated summit between China and the United States. Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy stances will prove important for both his allies and his adversaries, who may interpret this as a sign of flexibility, incoherence, or even unreliability. In relation to THAAD, Trump’s shift could be a worrying sign for China, which will not welcome such aggressive American interventionism in Northeast Asia. South Korea also has reason to be worried, as an aggressive American presence could further sour Sino-Korean relations and, in a more serious scenario, incite more belligerency from North Korea. On the other hand, South Korea may also be unable to further rely on American security should the Trump administration revert to its “America first” policy and abruptly change its stance on security priorities in the region. 

Domestically, South Korea will welcome a new president on May 9th, 2017, since a corruption scandal involving family-run conglomerates (Chaebol in Korean) led to the impeachment of former-President Park Geun-Hye. The deployment of THAAD has become a critical election issue, on which China and the United States are most likely capitalizing. Indeed, North Korea’s recent missile test could not have been more opportune as a justification for the deployment of American missile defense systems months ahead of schedule—before the decision could be logistically reversed by the results of the upcoming election. Additionally, China’s economic retaliation against South Korea for the deployment of THAAD is most likely China’s attempt to shape South Korea’s strategic choices and undermine the US-Korean alliance. However, China’s retaliation is increasingly seen as the geostrategic bullying of Seoul. As a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry affirmed, “A neighboring country can have its own position about the USFK’s (United States Forces Korea) deployment of THAAD, but it should not try to exert influence on our security policies.” 

Nonetheless, Park’s unilateral decision to deploy THAAD is now open to debate, as leading candidates are split in their opinion of its deployment. Members of the conservative New Frontiers Party (NFP) largely agree with Park’s THAAD decision, though it is clear that the issue is proving increasingly more divisive. Moon Jae-in of the Together Democratic Party (TDP) has said that he would review the terms of the system’s implementation but was careful not to promise anything. Meanwhile, Ahn Cheol-Soo of the People’s Party (PP) has firmly established his opposition to THAAD and has even called for a public referendum against it. 

However, rather than argue about South Korea’s security alliance with the United States or its economic relationship with China, South Koreans should focus on the necessity of THAAD for its security, budgetary priorities, and, more importantly the threat that North Korean missiles pose. As of now, North Korea’s missile testing has accelerated, which should cause alarm for the United States, China, and South Korea. According to data published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are no signs of North Korea slowing its tests, a report stating, “There is a 43 percent chance of North Korean WMD activity taking place in the next 14 days. There is a 62 percent chance of a North Korean WMD activity in the next 30 days.” Additionally, the North Korean regime has also come under scrutiny following the murder of Kim Jong-Nam, the current leader’s older half-brother, who had been considered the heir-apparent until he was exiled from North Korea. This raises further concerns regarding the stability of Kim Jong-Un’s regime and its effects on global security. 

South Korean Perspective of THAAD Deployment 

Understanding South Korean perspectives on THAAD is important, as the nation’s presidential candidates seek to satisfy the voters’ opinions. Currently, South Koreans are visibly divided over the deployment of THAAD. The most significant political opposition to the system has come from Seongju county, where THAAD will be installed and where citizens voice fears about environmental safety and the fact that Seongju will now be the first target of a North Korean missile strike. 

A public opinion survey conducted by the Asian Institute of Policy Studies in March of 2017 reveals interesting results about which countries the South Korean public favors and which it does not. As expected, China’s favorability among Koreans has dropped significantly by more than a full point. This shows a sharp contrast between the warm relations China and Korea enjoyed under former President Park. There has also been a dip in US favorability among South Koreans recently, explained by the fact that Koreans have typically shown resentment when great powers fight over the Korean Peninsula or interfere in its domestic issues. Most interestingly, at the moment Koreans express more favorability towards Japan than towards China. Japan has consistently been South Korea’s least favorite neighbor, with the exception of North Korea. This could be a cause of concern for China, who will not favor warming relations between the US, Japan, and South Korea. 

China’s Strategy to Overturn THAAD: Will it Work? 

It is very unlikely that South Korea will reverse the joint decision made with the United States to deploy THAAD. Logistically speaking, parts of the system have already arrived, beginning in March of this year. More importantly, consistent statements made by both American and Korean military officials affirming the deployment of THAAD and even suggesting an acceleration in its deployment strongly suggest that neither South Korean political party has the intention to change course, even if a progressive candidate should be elected president. Indeed, Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has stated “I don’t think THAAD deployment will change unless a new administration in South Korea—even a progressive one—thinks little of providing for the country’s national defense.” 

Furthermore, if Seoul were to backtrack on the THAAD decision, such a move would send undesirable signals to Beijing and Washington. Beijing would interpret the reversal as an economic and diplomatic success in its policies and develop false expectations for shaping future foreign policy on the peninsula. Backtracking would also encourage China to continue its use of punitive tactics for keeping South Korea in line with its interests, worsening relationships between China, South Korea, and the United States. Such a result would be a major setback, especially in the face of Pyongyang’s growing belligerence. Furthermore, a reversal would send a signal to Washington that South Korea is not committed to its security alliance with the United States. Thus, rather than forcing an ultimatum on South Korea for deploying THAAD, countries should cooperate in order to tackle North Korea’s nuclear threat, a threat which is, after all, at the heart of the issue.