Lee Jin-man/AP
Residents of a rural South Korean town protest in Seoul July 21 against a planned US missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense.

Why some South Koreans don't want shield from North's missiles

Locals worry the THAAD missile defense system would be a target, while analysts point out the risks of angering China with a joint US project. 

Fed up with what they call North Korea’s “nuclear blackmail,” South Korea and the United States are rolling out a counter response – a missile defense shield unlike any previously seen in East Asia.

Allied forces say that, once deployed, the $1.3 billion Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system – THAAD – would allow them to shoot down North Korean missiles fired at US and South Korean bases south of Seoul, the nation’s capital.

Yet there is a looming obstacle to this missile defense shield – opposition from within South Korea. Last week, thousands of demonstrators from Seongju County, where THAAD would be deployed, filled the streets of Seoul, watched by hundreds of riot police. Many of Seongju’s residents fear the system’s radars would emit harmful radiation and make them a certain target during a conflict with North Korea. 

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.

Kwon Young-se, South Korea’s former ambassador to Beijing, recently stated that the strategic partnership with China could be at risk. 

“What China is really worried about is that Seoul’s potential[ly] joining in the US-led regional missile defense network, not just THAAD deployment on the peninsula itself,” Kwon said in comments to Defense News.

Higher stakes for China ties

South Korea’s decision to host a missile defense shield raises the stakes in East Asia. If THAAD works, it could save thousands of lives – maybe tens of thousands – from a North Korean missile attack. But if it further antagonizes North Korea and China, it could doom hopes for a brokered solution to Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and missile technology.

Ever since they announced the missile defense system on July 8, South Korea and the United States have tried to persuade China that THAAD is aimed only at intercepting North Korean ballistic missiles.

“There’s no reason why this deployment should be of concern to Chinese leaders since it is a purely defensive measure,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at the time. 

North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January, then launched a long-range rocket the following month. In June, North Korea successfully tested a new mid-range ballistic missile, sending it more than 870 miles high. That demonstrated North Korea’s ability to attack military targets in the far south of the Korean peninsula, and added to the momentum to deploy THAAD.

Despite North Korea’s provocations, many Chinese officials and analysts see ulterior motives. They fear THAAD could undermine China’s deterrence capabilities – preventing Beijing from retaliating in the event of nuclear confrontation or war. THAAD’s radars also would give South Korea, and hence US intelligence agencies, the ability to look deep into Chinese and Russian territory. 

Until the current dispute, Seoul and Beijing were building increasingly strong diplomatic ties. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, importing $137 billion of South Korean goods last year. 

In recent weeks, China has made clear those ties are at risk. On Monday, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency quoted China’s foreign minister as telling his South Korean counterpart that the THAAD decision “has harmed the foundation of mutual trust between the two countries.” The two met late Sunday on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in Laos.

THAAD won't defend Seoul

Developed by Lockheed Martin, THAAD is designed to intercept and destroying incoming high-altitude missiles. It consists of a radar with forward-scanning coverage of 1,200 miles. It also includes 48 interceptors with a range of 125 miles that can be fired from the system’s six launchers.

The deployment planned in Seongju has been controversial, partly because of its location. Seongju sits more than 125 miles south of Seoul, meaning 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.

South Korean officials have been trying to counter claims that THAAD is part of a broader US missile defense system that includes Japan. Yonhap on Monday quoted an unnamed South Korean military official as saying that information from THAAD’s radar will not be shared with Japan.

Mr. Choi, the Yonsei security specialist, is skeptical. “How can you argue this is not part of US strategy?” he asks, noting that the United States for years has wanted to develop a missile defense network involving Japan and South Korea. Currently, the nearest operating THAAD system is in Guam, a US territory 2,000 miles southeast of Seoul.

Post-containment strategy?

Choi said he sees the missile system deployment as an unfortunate consequence of failed US-South Korean policy. A decade ago, he said, the south and north were developing stronger economic ties, with less tension. More recently, the Obama administration and South Korea have sought to isolate Pyongyang, under the assumption that the regime’s collapse was just a matter of time. That hasn’t happened, and in some ways North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has consolidated power by emphasizing the US threat.

Euan Graham, director of international security at the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, agrees that the US containment strategy has failed in some way. It hasn’t facilitated the demise of the North Korean regime or forced Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. But Mr. Graham says there are no easy solutions to North Korea’s rogue behavior, given past attempts at negotiation.

South Korea, he says, faces an increasing threat of a surprise missile attack, which is minimized by some of those who oppose the THAAD deployment.

“There is a certain failure within South Korea to treat the missile threat seriously,” says Graham, who previously was the chargé d’affaires at the British Embassy in Pyongyang. “South Koreans have lived so long with direct threat to Seoul, it is hard to convince the population of a wider threat to the rest of the country.”

Graham notes that South Korean President Park Geun-hye has made a priority of improving the country’s relationship with China, in part to seek its help in reducing the threat posed by Kim Jong-un. Yet that hasn’t worked, he said, given China’s lukewarm support for economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

“As a result of China’s decision not to put pressure with North Korea, South Korea has no choice but to change its approach,” he says. That shift in strategy, he adds, is now playing out with South Korea’s decision to host the missile defense system.

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