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China and South Korea trade barbs over US missile-defense system

China said South Korea is to blame for the regional instability, but South Korea's presidential office said China should do more to curb North Korea's provocations. 

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    A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test. South Korea rebuked China for its criticism of South Korea's plan to deploy the anti-ballistic missile system on the peninsula.
    US Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Handout via Reuters
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South Korea reproached claims by China that its decision to deploy a missile defense system on the Korean peninsula will destabilize the region, as tensions between the Asian powers have risen over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit.

President Park Geun-hye of South Korea said Sunday that the blame Beijing assigned to it in an editorial in the Chinese-run People’s Daily on Wednesday was “out of place.” The statement from Ms. Park’s office instead put the onus on Beijing, which she said has not curbed North Korea enough.

"Rather than taking issue with our purely defensive action, China should raise issue in a stronger manner with North Korea which is breaking peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and Northeast by conducting four nuclear tests and, just this year, launching more than 10 ballistic missiles," said Kim Sung-woo, the senior press secretary, in the statement.  

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The blame game South Korea and China have been ensnared in this month shows the rising tensions between the two countries in the face of the growing number of weapons tests that North Korea has been conducting in the region. Yet, the dispute between Seoul and Beijing also represents Beijing’s anger that Seoul, instead of looking to China, turned to its long-time military ally, the United States, for security.  

THAAD is a US-developed system that detects incoming missiles and intercepts them at high altitudes.

“Think of it as the outer layer in a multi-layered defense system designed to protect South Korea – and the 28,500 U.S. military personnel stationed there – from North Korean missile attacks,” writes Col. Clint Hinote of the US Air Force in a post for the Council on Foreign Relations.

But China objected to the system out of fear that its powerful radar will enable the US, South Korea, and Japan to use it against the Chinese. Though there had been discussions for years of a THAAD unit on the peninsula, South Korea had remained hesitant to accept a US offer to deploy the unit because of China’s concerns.

Over that same period, the two Asian countries developed a regional friendship, according to Jane Perlez of The New York Times.

[President Xi Jinping] spent much political capital wooing South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, in hopes of drawing the country away from its longtime ally, the United States. He made an elaborate state visit to Seoul while shunning North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong-un, whom he has yet to meet. Ms. Park returned the favor last year, coming to Beijing for a major military parade at Tiananmen Square, the only leader of an American ally to attend.

But increased North Korean aggression, including four nuclear tests, worried South Korea. During North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January, in which the country said it tested a hydrogen bomb, Park couldn’t reach Xi by telephone. According to South Korean officials, Park became convinced China could not rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, South Korean officials said.

So, Park turned to the US for protection. South Korea agreed in July to allow the US military to deploy THAAD there by 2017, immediately drawing criticism from China. 

Since then, North Korea has also conducted more weapons tests in the region. On Wednesday, it fired its first missile ever to land in Japanese waters. The test missile landed 600 kilometers (nearly 400 miles) from Japan.

Meanwhile, China has laid the blame on South Korea, most recently in an editorial in the state-run People’s Daily.

“The joint decision of Seoul and Washington in early July to deploy the system on the Korean Peninsula breaks the strategic balance in Northeast Asia, threatening if not dooming regional peace and stability with a possible onset of a new Cold War,” it reads. “What South Korea truly needs to ensure its national security is a friendly neighborhood rather than a US Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system at the cost of the interests of surrounding countries such as China.”

In addition to its rebuke of the editorial, South Korea has reversed past assurances it made to Beijing about THAAD. South Korea originally told China it would not share any radar information with Japan. But South Korea reversed that promise following the North Korean missile that landed in Japanese water, saying it was considering sharing the information under a trilateral agreement with Japan and the US, according to UPI.  

Even within South Korea, there is opposition to the deployment of THAAD, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

Some South Korean academics and legislators also oppose THAAD. They warn that Seoul risks becoming a pawn on a strategic chessboard as the United States moves to counter China’s influence in East Asia and the South China Sea.

“This is all about expanding the United States’ missile defense system, not serving South Korea’s needs,” says Choi Jong-kun, a professor of political science and international studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. He and others say THAAD is worsening relations with China at a time when its help is needed on enforcing sanctions on North Korea and encouraging Pyongyang to end its development of nuclear weapons.... the THAAD system would not provide defense for the nation’s capital, home to 10 million people.

Military officials say siting THAAD closer to the border would make it more vulnerable to North Korean attack. By locating it in Seongju, the system will provide protection for South Korea’s military headquarters in South Chungcheong Province and US military headquarters in Pyeongtaek, as well as two other US bases.

THAAD is not the only current point of conflict between China and the US. As the Monitor reported, the two have also clashed over Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and competition on global markets.

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