[Reporter’s notebook] With THAAD, S. Korea would be pulled into US-China power play

Posted on : 2015-06-12 15:22 KST Modified on : 2015-06-12 15:22 KST
US and South Korean officials both avoiding direct comments on the missile defense system’s reality
 used for detecting Chinese ICBM (hypothetical)
used for detecting Chinese ICBM (hypothetical)

Recent comments by US authorities about the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) weapons system seem to have one thing in common.

When suggestions are made that deploying THAAD on the Korean Peninsula would also affect China, they say that THAAD is intended to defend against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

When reminded that the THAAD radar could monitor Chinese territory or detect Chinese ICBMs being launched at the US, they either say that this does not affect the strategic balance with China or deny that these claims are true.

And that’s it. No concrete reasons are given, no arguments made.

Frank Rose, US Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, did address the question head on when he said during a seminar that, since two THAAD radars are already stationed in Japan, deploying one in South Korea would not have any additional effect on China.

But this is a lame argument, considering that the radar to be deployed on the Korean Peninsula would be around 1,000km closer to China than the radars in Japan, enabling more precise detection.

Americans are thoroughly educated in public speaking from an early age, which means that even people who have not gone on to higher education are usually able to provide logical responses. However, it seems that they have not been able to do so in regard to the question of THAAD.

In my opinion, the reason is that there is something the US is reluctant to bring into the open. To be sure, it could be because THAAD specifications are regarded as a military secret.

Nevertheless, making unsolicited and ambiguous remarks about an issue that has become a political bone of contention for South Korea for nearly a year while reiterating that this is something that South Korea must decide does not show the courtesy due an ally.

But it turns out that one question leads to another. The THAAD radar has two modes: forward-based mode and terminal mode. People say that the former mode has a detection range of 1,800-2,000km and the latter of 600-900km, though no definite source is provided for this information.

Furthermore, a claim was made by an “anonymous source” that, since the radar to be deployed in South Korea will be in terminal mode, China will not be affected.

Hankyoreh reporting, however, has shown these claims to be false. A document that the US Defense Department submitted to Congress states that it is possible to switch between the two modes in eight hours. In a crisis situation, the radars could be reoriented from North Korea to China.

According to the analysis of Theodore Postol, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and George Lewis, a visiting scholar of Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, Cornell Univerity on missile defense, the THAAD radar would be able to detect and track Chinese ICBMs en route to the US for at least 3,000 km.

Some people wonder what‘s wrong with South Korea having powerful weapons that can contribute to the national defense. This tends to be the position of figures in South Korea’s Ministry of Defense.

But this reflects only a partial understanding of the situation. The problem is that THAAD is a strategic weapon that is being used in a military power game between the US and China.

In the analysis of Postol and Lewis, the data collected by this radar can be communicated in real time to the early warning radar network on the continental US. Simply put, THAAD would mark the beginning of South Korea’s integration into the US missile defense system.

In that case, if a military conflict broke out between the US and China over something unrelated to South Korea, South Korea could still become a target for China. Chinese military strategists would regard the THAAD radar as a potential threat.

It is possible that the US will not provide details about the capability or operation of THAAD even when it officially requests permission to deploy the system in South Korea. The reason is that if the US were honest on the issue, South Korea might be hesitant to grant its request.

In regard to the THAAD question, I think that the South Korean government should waste no time in expressing its rejection of THAAD. If circumstances develop to the point that the US makes an official request, the nature of the US-ROK alliance and the character of the current South Korean administration will make it even harder to say no.


By Park Hyun, Washington correspondent


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