Missile defense puts South Korea in East Asian squeeze

A dispute over possible deployment has brought sharp words between Seoul and Beijing. Foreign ministers of S. Korea, China, and Japan will meet for the first time in three years Saturday amid tensions over security, territory, and wartime history.

Lee Jin-man/AP
New South Korean military officers saluted during a joint commission ceremony of more than 6,000 new officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines at the military headquarters in Gyeryong, south of Seoul, South Korea, on March 12. Lee Jin-man

US interest in placing a new generation of missile defense with a detection range of up to 1,200 miles on the Korean peninsula has brought a diplomatic dust-up between Beijing and Seoul, with China this week asking that the system not be deployed, and South Korea retorting that the decision is its own.

The dispute puts South Korea in the tough position of having to choose between its longtime ally and its main economic partner. And it comes just ahead of the first meeting in three years of the foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan, and China. Many hope the gathering will calm tensions over security, territory, and history that have become more charged this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Washington has not yet formally asked South Korea to deploy the new US missile defense system , which is called THAAD, or Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense. But Pentagon officials have openly expressed concern over North Korea’s missile capability, with one US vice admiral saying this week that Pyongyang’s missiles can reach US bases in Asia and that the North may have an intercontinental device within a year.

The Pentagon has initiated a review of US missile defense after military officials described the current strategy as "unsustainable," Reuters reports.

But Beijing has suggested that the real target of the THAAD system is China, since it can detect atmospheric objects deep within the mainland.

South Korea responded sharply this week to Chinese suggestions about its security arrangements, which include 28, 500 US troops in the country.

The New York Times reports that South Korean planners had long supported the more limited Patriot missile defense system, but that advances in the North's ballistic missile technology have changed many minds in the South's military. The Times quoted a South Korean spokesman after a Chinese diplomat urged it not to deploy

“A neighboring country can have its own opinion on the possible deployment of the Thaad system here by the U.S. forces in South Korea,” Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said during a regular news briefing on Tuesday, without referring to China by name. “But it should not try to influence our security policy.”

South Korean civic groups on the left oppose the deployment, and Russia and North Korea have made negative statements as well. 

Ahead of Saturday’s troika summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, himself a former South Korean diplomat, addressed the strained dynamics in the region, saying that amity in “Northeast Asia still remains a missing link.… I sincerely hope that the dialogue between countries in the region, in particular Japan, China and the Republic of Korea, will proceed in a forward-looking manner."

"We must lay the ground for genuine reconciliation, harmony, peace and prosperity,” he added, according to The Associated Press.

Japan and South Korea have nearly stopped speaking to each other in the past year, and the Obama administration has been gingerly hinting it would like to change the current frosty moment. As AP reported:

“Obama will get another shot at impressing the importance of reconciliation when Abe visits Washington in late April, and when Park follows, likely in June. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel urged both sides this week to try to improve strained bilateral ties, calling the tension between them a "strategic liability" for all three countries.

The American missions to both Japan and South Korea have been under strain themselves in recent weeks. US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert was attacked by a knife-wielding nationalist two weeks ago but returned to work yesterday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, authorities in Japan are investigating phone-call death threats against US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and a US diplomat in Okinawa. The threats took place a month ago but were revealed this week by Asahi Shimbun. 

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