[News analysis] THAAD controversy an outcome of much longer, ongoing debate

Posted on : 2015-04-09 17:38 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
S. Korea is now at risk of getting wedged in between China and the US over issue of missile defense

The recent debate over deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula is an extension of a years-old ongoing debate over US missile defense systems. THAAD‘s emergence as a major diplomatic issue could stem from a lack of strategic judgment and Cold War-era antagonistic policies from Seoul.

The issue of South Korea’s participation in US-led missile defense has surfaced repeatedly over the past decade. Each time, Seoul has maintained that it would not take part. But in practice, it has found itself drawn step by step into Washington‘s missile defense vision.

The US first requested South Korean participation when it began pushing missile defense in earnest with the inauguration of President George W. Bush in 2001. The Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003) rejected the idea, citing concerns that it might trigger a backlash from China and Russia and provoke North Korea. It also suffered the humiliation of reaching an agreement at a Feb. 2001 summit with Russia to maintain and strengthen the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) restricting the building of missile defense systems, only to encounter fierce protests from the US. Underlying its approach was a goal of managing the North Korea threat and provocations by promoting inter-Korean reconciliation and relaxing tensions through dialogue and diplomacy, rather than relying on military means alone.

It’s an approach that was broadly carried on under the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-08). But Roh also introduced the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) missile for air defense and the Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) for the Aegis vessel - leading some to question whether the door had been opened for South Korean missile defense participation. Both missiles were early models of the Patriot-3 and SM-3, which are components of missile defense.

The situation changed dramatically with the arrival of the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2008. Restoring relations with the US became a priority, and the issue of missile defense participation came up as a matter of course. Indeed, Kim Tae-hyo, Secretary to the President for Foreign Affairs at the time, declared after the election that participation would be “given favorable consideration.” The ensuing backlash led the administration to reaffirm its non-participation. In its place, plans were announced for a Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system. It was South Korea’s military response to the repeated provocations spawned by the hard-line North Korea policies, including the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and North Korea’s second nuclear test. An independent missile defense system was offered as an alternative - and a way of quieting the debate over missile defense participation.

The missile defense issue took on even greater importance when the Park Geun-hye administration took office in 2013. North Korea‘s nuclear and missile programs were key reasons for the Oct. 2014 decision to once again postpone the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to South Korea, with an agreement between Seoul and Washington that the transfer could happen after the KAMD had been set up.

But the idea of an “independent” KAMD fell by the wayside with South Korea’s acceptance of US demands that it be “interoperable” with US missile defense. Since the two systems would basically have to be integrated through the sharing of radar information, the KAMD would be effectively a component of the US missile defense network. Seoul’s decision in late 2014 to force through the signing of a trilateral intelligence sharing agreement with Washington and Tokyo paved the way for a trilateral missile defense system based on interoperability.

“What we’re seeing with the recent THAAD debate is a clash of strategic interests between the US, which has stubbornly insisted on building a missile defense system; South Korea, which has ultimately agreed to it; and China, which wants to nip it in the bud,” explained a former senior foreign affairs and national security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Barring some change in position toward improving inter-Korean relations or otherwise changing the security environment on the Korean Peninsula, there’s a lot of potential for us to get caught in the middle between the US and China going ahead,” the former official added.


By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer


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