Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan-jin told the National Assembly on June 18 that he would not object to USFK installing the US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. With his hasty remarks, Kim showed a lack of consideration of Washington’s aims and the ramifications of having THAAD on the Korean peninsula. In a nutshell, we have much more to lose from it than we stand to gain.
THAAD is one of the key components of the missile defense system currently being pushed by the US. It was developed for the interception of enemy missiles in the terminal phase, at altitudes between 40 and 150 km. The system is designed for the US to respond to hypothetical “strategic threats.” It’s also very pricey, with one system costing upwards of US$1 billion. Three systems are currently operational; even when scheduled future ones are counted, the number rises to just seven. Any of them that is set up by USFK has to be seen as targeting China more than North Korea. That’s certainly how China is going to see it. And, indeed, the X-band radar operated with it has a detection range of thousands of miles, which would put most of China’s major regions within its sights. If USFK does install THAAD, that puts South Korea in the position of active cooperation with the US’s attempt to hem China in.
In recent months, the US has been turning up the pressure on Seoul to join the missile defense system. The leaks about the US considering installing THAAD with USFK are a part of this. In the past, the South Korean government went on to purchase Patriot missiles that were first acquired by USFK; a similar outcome could be on the way with THAAD. Kim himself said South Korea has no intention of purchasing the system, but he also said having it in USFK would “improve our ability to intercept North Korean ballistic missiles.” It’s a statement that Washington is likely to take as a sign that a South Korean purchase may be forthcoming.
Having THAAD on the Korean peninsula will be a severe blow to South Korea’s hard-won progress in relations with China. Depending on how things unfold, it could end up being a crucial turning point in our ties. The idea of THAAD being a useful safeguard against North Korean missiles is really just speculation at this point. Even within the US, the reliability of missile defense has been the subject of endless debate.
We also have to take into account the negative reaction we can expect from Pyongyang. North Korea is likely to respond by pouring more energy into its own missile development, leaving inter-Korean relations even less stable than now.
Washington’s plan is to use missile defense as a way of beefing up military cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo. If South Korea lets itself get dragged into this, the result will be a situation where it, the US, and Japan are all pitted against China. The outcome of issues involving the peninsula, including North Korea’s nuclear program, will be all the worse for it. Seoul needs to come out with a clear position now to stop that from happening.
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