[Column] Rumors of S. Korea hosting the US’ intermediate-range missiles are hopefully false

Posted on : 2020-01-02 17:06 KST Modified on : 2020-01-02 17:06 KST
Deploying such weapons on Korean soil would devastate Seoul’s relations with Beijing more than THAAD shock
The US Department of Defense tests intermediate-range missiles on San Nicolas Island off the coast of California on Aug. 18, 2019, 16 days after the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in 1987. (US Department of Defense)
The US Department of Defense tests intermediate-range missiles on San Nicolas Island off the coast of California on Aug. 18, 2019, 16 days after the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in 1987. (US Department of Defense)

Some truly unbelievable talk has recently been going around. The content has been quite explicit: one or more senior government officials have been “leaking” statements about possibly having the intermediate-range missiles that the US has talked about deploying in Asia brought to South Korea.

I’d like to believe this truly is a baseless rumor. It’s difficult to imagine any government official saying something so irresponsible, no matter how informal the setting. But the recent trend of articles along similar lines and the things that are being talked about among experts raise the concern that this may not simply be a ridiculous fiction.

I hope my concerns are unwarranted. But if only out of solicitude, I would like to once again mention the obvious and discuss the serious consequences a South Korean deployment of US intermediate-range missiles would have.

On Aug. 2 of last year, the US officially announced that it was withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in 1987. The INF treaty banned the deployment of land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500km -- which the US unilaterally renounced. The US did not attempt to conceal that its withdrawal was aimed at China, which it contended had been developing and deploying intermediate-range missiles and other weapons while the US was bound by the treaty’s terms.

The debate escalated after comments the following day on Aug. 3 by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who said while traveling to Australia that he favored the Asian deployment of land-based intermediate-range missiles. The foreign press mentioned South Korea alongside Japan, Guam, and other candidate sites. The day after that, it was announced that the Asia deployment of intermediate-range missiles would be “based on discussions with allies and partners in the corresponding region.”

So far, South Korea’s stance has been to firmly maintain that it has never considered or agreed to a deployment of US intermediate-range missiles and has no plans to do so. I have not heard anything about any changes in this official stance from Seoul. There’s also no circumstantial evidence to indicate that the US has actively requested discussions with the South Korean government on said deployment. But if it is true that one or more senior government officials are going around saying things that directly contradict this stance, that is no simple matter.

Intermediate-range missiles are clearly intended for offensive purposes. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is for detection and defense -- responding to and intercepting missiles launched by another party. If offensive intermediate-range missiles are deployed in South Korea, the consequences for South Korea-China relations will be at a whole different level from what we saw during the THAAD episode.

No plausible justification for intermediate-range missiles

With THAAD, there was at least the surface justification of defending against North Korean missiles. The deployment of intermediate-range missiles can’t be justified even on those superficial grounds, and would amount to a declaration of war against China. Russia has also been reacting sensitively. It would amount to South Korea volunteering for the role of the US’ “human shield” against China and Russia -- not a situation where we can conceive of using intermediate-range missiles as “leverage.” That’s why I hope the reports of a senior administration official alluding to something along those lines are proven wrong.

I want to believe it’s impossible, that no senior administration official responsible for advising President Moon Jae-in from a close distance could be so disloyal. Since taking office, Moon has worked constantly to blunt the effects of the “THAAD shock” dealt during the Park Geun-hye administration. He is seen as having more or less managed to get South Korea-China relations back on track after their THAAD collapse with his summits in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during the trilateral summit with Japan last month. Under the circumstances, even a rumor of the possibility of an intermediate-range missile deployment that would once again sow discord with China and at home would have a devastating effect on the relationship with Beijing that Moon has just managed to restore.

Lee Yong-in, head of the international news team
Lee Yong-in, head of the international news team

A deployment of intermediate-range missiles would be tantamount to declaring China and Russia “enemies” and trusting all our diplomatic assets to the US. This also runs counter to what our neighbors are doing. The Shinzo Abe administration in Japan has been actively endeavoring to improve relations with Beijing in spite of an intensely anti-China domestic climate, including its efforts to get Xi Jinping to pay a visit to Japan sometime around April of this year. The reason has to do with its loss of trust for the Donald Trump administration in the US. To buck this trend would show a misreading of the situation. I want to believe that the rumors will be proven untrue.

By Lee Yong-in, head of the international news team

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

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