[Analysis] THAAD decision setting of a series of rancorous debates

Posted on : 2016-02-15 17:36 KST Modified on : 2016-02-15 17:36 KST
Unproven missile system risks relations with China and Russia, as well as conditions for local residents

The debate over the surprise decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system with United States Forces Korea (USFK) has touched off new conflicts in and around South Korea.

THAAD on the Korean peninsula
THAAD on the Korean peninsula


China in mind?

According to the Ministry of National Defense, the grounds for claiming that the USFK THAAD deployment doesn’t affect China are simple: the system’s key AN/TYP-2 radar component only operates within a left-right azimuth of 120 degrees, which means the system would not affect China if it is positioned toward North Korea. Also, the detection range in terminal-based mode (TBM) would be 600 to 800 km, which would ostensibly reach only as far as the area around the Yalu (Amnok) River on the North Korean-Chinese border.

But Beijing’s concerns go beyond the system’s range. Indeed, China and Russia have both been wary since the time the US announced its missile defense plans in the early ’00s. Their worries center on the damage such a system would do to to their own nuclear deterrence capabilities. From their position, they should be able to retaliate to a hypothetical nuclear attack against them with nuclear weapons of their own - a capability that a missile defense system would undercut. The nuclear balance would collapse, and both countries’ security interests would be jeopardized. It is this situation of conflict between the US on one side and China and Russia that is the root of Beijing and Moscow’s objection to THAAD. It’s also not an issue where Seoul is in a position to win either side over or plead for understanding.

Another factor is the competition between the US and China for power in Northeast Asia. The two countries are already contending with a number of potential causes of military conflict, including Taiwan, territorial issues in the South China Sea, and sovereignty over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. From the standpoint of this confrontation - which has intensified since Washington introduced its “rebalancing Asia” policy approach - USFK is seen as a spear potentially pointed at China if an emergency erupts. South Korea also reached an agreement with the US in Jan. 2006 for USFK’s “strategic flexibility.” No longer is USFK a “fixture” of South Korea; instead, it is a free military force that can be deployed to battlefields outside the Korean Peninsula. It’s a fact that has made USFK’s activities in Northeast Asia and elsewhere a focus of Beijing’s strategic considerations.

The problem is the restriction on China’s ability to counter USFK once it is armed with a THAAD system. In a 2007 report titled “Entering the Dragon’s Lair,” the US‘s RAND Corporation recommended that the US military prepare for possible Chinese missile attacks against Osan and Kunsan Air Bases.

The Northeast Asian missile defense framework also looks to be headed toward a system of trilateral integration among South Korea, the US, and Japan. The system is now poised to be linked up for military information sharing sometime this year. The inevitable impression for Beijing is that the USFK THAAD deployment means missile defense is serving as the cornerstone for increase trilateral security cooperation against it.


The utility of THAAD
Possible THAAD placement locations
Possible THAAD placement locations

The Ministry of National Defense has also said THAAD’s capabilities have been “proven,” with “successful results in all 14 test evaluations conducted so far.” But many dispute the findings of those evaluations, which have been supervised by the US Defense Department.

“There wasn’t any evaluation under actual fighting conditions - the test evaluations consisted of intercepting a missile that had been launched out of a cargo aircraft via parachute,” said military affairs critic Kim Jong-dae, raising questions about the findings’ reliability.

Even US military authorities have recognized the THAAD system‘s shortcomings. An annual report released last month by the Pentagon’s Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) pointed out problems related to the radar-operator interface and launch pad. The DOT&E also noted that 18 of 39 areas for improvement cited in 2012 remain unaddressed, with modifications and testing planned for the 2017 accounting year. The current rush to deploy a flawed weapon system is turning the peninsula into a testing ground - and an arena for the competition between rival powers.

At present, North Korea is estimated to have somewhere between 800 and 1,000 ballistic missiles. Most operate on liquid-propellant rocket engines. Launches involve a time-consuming fueling process, with only the KN-02 available as a solid-propellant rocket for immediate launch. The KN-02 is difficult for THAAD to intercept, with a range of around 150 km and a maximum altitude of approximately 40 km. The system is also helpless in the face of long-range artillery, which poses an even greater threat than missiles.

Deployment of THAAD is also likely to lead to a runaway arms race. Last year, North Korea successfully conducted an ejection test on a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Those efforts could be intended to develop the capabilities to fire missiles from the rear area of South Korea while avoiding the missile defense network. A competition between “spears” and “shields” now looks unavoidable - and shields will require an astronomically greater investment from South Korea than spears. It‘s an asymmetrical case of runaway competition that could prove very costly in the long run.


Electromagnetic waves damaging to health and environment?
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from a battery during a flight operational test.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from a battery during a flight operational test.

The US military technical manual lists a maximum distance of 5.5 km within a 130-degree range as the danger radius for electromagnetic waves from THAAD’s AN/TYP-2 radar system. The South Korean Ministry of National Defense maintains that there should be no negative effects to human health or the environment from the waves as long as these specifications are observed.

“My understanding is that the level of electromagnetic waves around the THAAD radar accords with the safety levels specified by domestic law and the World Health Organization,” said one ministry official.

“As long as the generators are used during emergency situations and commercial electricity is used normally, there shouldn‘t be any noise issues,” the same official added.

The official also noted that a June 2015 environment impact assessment on Guam’s THAAD system showed damages from the radar‘s electromagnetic wave to “only apply within a range of 100 meters.”

But the same report notes that US authorities also had to damage 144,000 square meters of forest to establish a site for THAAD. The possible extinction of some wild animal and plant life was reported as another risk. A June 2015 reportage in the Hankyoreh written after a visit to the area around Japan’s Kyogamisaki Sub-Base, where THAAD radar has also been deployed, found local residents complaining of health and environment damages from the powerful electromagnetic waves for six months after the radar went into operation. The Japanese government called the idea of negative effects “unthinkable,” noting that the residents were to the rear of a radar system pointed out to sea. Residents, who have consistently opposed the radar’s deployment, countered that the health effects from the waves are “not easy to detect because they occur gradually over a long period of time like with radiation, and a causal relationship with health damages is difficult to prove.”

The residents predicted that the government would continue arguing that there are “no effects.”

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer and Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Most viewed articles