Will THAAD make the Korean peninsula safer?

The South Koreans have agreed to deploy an anti-missile system in partnership with the United States, but to China, THAAD is about more than just a shield against North Korean attack.

US Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Reuters/File
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the US Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.

South Korea agreed earlier this month to the deployment of an anti-missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), to provide defensive capabilities against its neighbor to the north.

The United States had been suggesting the move for years, but Seoul only came on board in the face of increasingly frequent missile and nuclear tests by North Korea. Yet there are some who see the move as bearing far greater significance than a simple shield between two halves of a divided nation.

China, in particular, has decried the move, saying it will destabilize an already fragile region and negatively affect “world peace.” The question, then, is whether the defensive capabilities THAAD provides will outweigh the diplomatic ripples – and other reactions – it may provoke.

“I certainly don’t believe THAAD or any missile defense is a panacea,” says Jonathan Pollack, Interim SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies, Center for East Asia Policy Studies, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “But if it inhibits North Korea, under some extreme circumstances, from using its capabilities, and instills some confidence in the government of South Korea to defend key assets and population areas in a more integrated fashion, then it’ll be money well spent.”

One of the fundamental questions: How much of a threat does North Korea actually pose to South Korea? The simple answer to that question is that nobody seems to know, bar the regime in Pyongyang, but the rhetoric – and continued missile and nuclear tests – seems intended to instill fear.

The latest round of ballistic missile tests by North Korea on Tuesday, seen as a reaction to South Korea's decision to deploy THAAD, came with the explicit explanation, according to the North’s official KCNA news agency, that they were simulating “preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea.”

This was just the latest in a series of missile tests by Pyongyang, accompanied by a nuclear test earlier this year. In the face of such activities, as Mr. Pollack says, while it is difficult to fathom how real the threat truly is, “to assume benign intentions would be imprudent.”

In seeking to counteract that threat, however real it may be, THAAD is a decent option, says Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, citing a perfect intercept record in trials to date.

Yet, as Dr. Karako is keen to emphasize, missile defense systems are not intended to “sit and play catch.” That is to say, they may not be able to prevent every missile from finding its target in the event of an attack, but integrated into the overall military structure, they can provide valuable support.

“In the event of an attack, the aim [of a missile defense system] is to defend critical infrastructure,” says Karako. “North Korea wouldn’t be able to decapitate the military in the south, and so THAAD would buy time to bring the full military forces to bear.”

The idea of deploying THAAD has remained unpalatable in South Korea until recently. Many feared it might provoke a retaliation from North Korea and anger China. Only in the face of the heightened ballistic tests in the North, say analysts, has a tipping point been reached, and public opinion has finally swung in favor.

It will, however, take time to actually install the system. In fact, the stated aim is to have it in place by the end of next year, just in time to beat the South Korean presidential elections, scheduled for December 2017, which could usher in a new administration with different ideas.

Indeed, according to some analysts, it "all boils down to politics."

"If Pyongyang has credible nuclear and missile capabilities, it is better positioned to use these capabilities to wrest away bigger concessions from Washington and Seoul," says Sung-Yoon Lee, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

"Likewise, if Seoul had credible missile defense capabilities, it [would] be better positioned to protect its own security interests and negotiate on various issues – political, economic, nuclear, human rights, etc. – vis-à-vis Pyongyang from a position of strength."

Yet it is not just the two Koreas, and the United States, with interests in this saga. China, in particular, is concerned.

In an article posted Thursday by the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, the deployment of THAAD was described as a move that would “negatively affect peace on the Korean peninsula,” as well as security on a regional and global scale, and would break “strategic balance and boost arms race.”

“The Chinese leadership and propaganda does not see THAAD as being a legitimate response to North Korean missile tests and belligerent rhetoric,” says Adam Cathcart, a lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds, England, “but is rather constructed as part of the plot to contain China's rise.”

China is concerned that THAAD will be directed not just at North Korea, but could in fact impact their own nuclear capabilities, in the highly unlikely event of a confrontation with the US. This concern stems from the fact that China’s nuclear weapons strategy is based on minimal numbers of warheads, in the belief that such would still be a sufficient deterrent. But if those capabilities were compromised by a missile defense system, Beijing might think about boosting its arsenal.

It is therefore incumbent upon the US and South Korea, say analysts, to take every step necessary to demonstrate to China that THAAD will be aimed only at North Korea.

Some observers also suggest that China, as the only country that holds any real influence over North Korea, could have done more to deter it from the nuclear-armed path it has chosen. Indeed, those very nuclear weapons that Pyongyang now treasures could, conceivably, threaten China, too.

“China has been playing a very dangerous game,” says Karako of CSIS. “They have held a wolf by the ears in the hope that North Korea would act as a wedge to alliances in the region.”

But whatever the complexities of the situation, Western analysts seem to agree on one thing: Seoul is right to be deploying THAAD at this juncture, to provide a more robust defense and prove to the South Korean people that it takes that task seriously.

“Regardless of Chinese objections,” says Pollack, “I don’t see South Korea turning back on this decision.”

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