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Rob York is a feature writer for NK News and Ph.D candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The United States wants South Korea as part of its missile defense network, one which could in theory serve as a deterrent to North Korean aggression. South Korea, so far at least, seems to have its own ideas.
Unlike Japan, Seoul has thus far appeared hesitant to adopt the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and many sources have identified the prospects of provoking China, the most powerful of South Korea’s neighbors and its largest trading partner, as the reasons for such hesitance.
A number of experts told NK News, though, that there are other concerns playing a large role in the South’s reluctance – and not just Russia, another U.S. missile defense critic. This includes logistics, the expense of the system, plus the economic and diplomatic benefits of developing its missile defense capabilities itself.
Furthermore, despite the long-standing relationship the South has with the U.S. – dating back almost seven decades, compared to only a little more than two decades of official ties with Beijing – most analysts suggested that South Korea’s unwillingness to offend China on this point was well-founded, and that even that Chinese concerns regarding the system had merit.
WHAT THAAD MEANS
‘With the implementation of the THAAD, South Korea would be able to shoot down ballistic missiles up to 150 kilometers in altitude’
THAAD, first proposed in the late-‘80s and under development until it reached the production stage in 2008, is a long-range missile defense system. Its capabilities are intended to be purely defensive, as its missiles lack warheads, using their own kinetic energy to stop incoming projectiles.
“THAAD is a system within (a) network of systems, and that’s one of the things the U.S. wants South Korea to adopt,” NK News military analyst John Grisafi said. “Aegis (Combat System) is also part of that, which South Korea has adopted.”
All three destroyers in the South’s Sejong the Great-class vessels are Aegis equipped, as will be future Sejong-class destroyers and Chungmugong Yi Sun Shin-class vessels, Grisafi said.
“The idea for integrated missile defense is to have various interceptor systems and their radars as well as other missile-carrying and detection platforms (ships, helicopters, aircraft, ground-based radars, etc.) all tied together in communications and working in concert to react to and defeat incoming threats,” he said. Instead of having a missile system or missile-launching platform that must rely on its own detection systems, under the integrated system they could feed information to and receive it from other systems.
“In the event the THAAD misses on its high-altitude intercept attempt, the Patriot could make another attempt as the missile comes into the lower altitudes covered by the Patriot,” he said.
Military analyst Subin Kim said THAAD would mean a leap in defense capabilities.
“With the implementation of the THAAD, South Korea would be able to shoot down ballistic missiles up to 150 kilometers in altitude,” he said. As the South Korean Air Force’s anti-ballistic missile technology, under the current MIM-104 Patriot system it has operated since 2010, is limited to an altitude of around 20 kilometers, the new capabilities “would be quite a stretch,” Kim said.
“It would give South Korea more chances to intercept North Korean ballistic missiles —THAAD engaging one in the upper tier and Patriot engaging again in the lower tier if (THAAD) failed. Whether ballistic missiles are the North Korea’s direst threat to South Korea is still debatable, but this (would be) quite an improvement indeed.”
Grisafi said that the U.S. essentially wants South Korea to adopt a similar arrangement as it shares with its allies in Europe.
“The U.S. would prefer to get itself and all its allies in a region using the same or compatible systems so they can tie everyone’s relevant units – particularly those of South Korea and Japan in this case – into the same network as the U.S.,” he said. “That way, any detection system from the U.S., South Korea or Japan (and possibly other allies in Southeast Asia) can feed information to one another and coordinate.”
‘The U.S. might be Seoul’s closest ally, but they are far away and China and Russia are very close and South Korea has to live by them’
Sources that have identified China as a primary cause of concern aren’t mistaken, analysts agree, but Russia is also an issue. China and the Korean Peninsula’s inhabitants have a long history of cooperation, even if Seoul and Beijing experience a Cold War rift as Beijing adopted communism and backed North Korea. Despite this decades-long aberration, they have since opened official relations in 1992 and have been enjoying an increasingly warm relationship in recent years.
Beijing also is the only major ally left for Pyongyang, and has attempted – though with limited success – to play intermediary on issues such as the North’s nuclear program.
Russia, which also enjoys relations with both Koreas and has proposed grand plans for cooperation with both of them, has also been a staunch critic of the U.S. missile defense system, though more so in Europe.
“The U.S. might be Seoul’s closest ally, but they are far away and China and Russia are very close and South Korea has to live by them,” Grisafi said. “And then there’s the ROK-China trade relationship and the influence both China and Russia have with the North. So, the concerns of China and Russia, I think, are something Seoul seriously considers.”
However, Grisafi said that while the best-case scenario – at least from the U.S. point of view – would be for the South purchasing the U.S.-manufactured system, there were other scenarios it could celebrate.
“Barring (South Korea’s adaptation of THAAD), they hope Korea will make their own system interoperable with the U.S. and allied systems so it integrates into one giant missile and air defense network,” he said, “but even that bothers China and Russia.”
Therefore, South Korea has appeared to be leaning in the direction of manufacturing its own missile defense system. This, Grisafi said, would make Seoul less dependent and would have economic benefits. For instance, a domestic source would benefit from the South Korean government’s purchase – when the system is ready – the manufacturing could translate into R&D that could benefit the country in other ways and its development would give Seoul the option of exporting its weapons what it develops.
“Making their own arms makes them less bound to the U.S. and dependent on the U.S., both in reality and public appearance,” he said.
However, THAAD can readily be implemented now and a South Korean-made system still needs to be developed, so if Seoul chooses to produce its own there will be a gap between when it could employ THAAD-quality defenses and when it actually does so.
It was for this reason, Grisafi said, that Seoul officials okay’d the United States Forces Korea deploying its own THAAD batteries on the Korean Peninsula as a stop-gap measure.
DEFERRING TO CHINA?
Picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye: Republic of Korea, Flickr Creative Commons
Robert Kelly, professor of international relations at Pusan National University in Busan, South Korea, objected to China playing a determining factor in a critical defense choice for Seoul.
“Missile defense here isn’t some random, unnecessary system; it’s of existential importance, particularly as North Korea is intent on building nuclear-tipped missiles now, too,” he said. “If the Chinese don’t like it, let them rein in North Korea. But they either won’t or can’t, so why should China be allowed to dictate South Korean defense choices?”
In a sense, Kelly suggested, the United States security arrangement with Seoul provides a perverse incentive in that it leaves certain South Korean political factions – particularly those left-of-center – to argue that the South does not require the immediate upgrade in its missile defense capabilities.
“If South Korea was defending itself alone, missile defense would be approved without a moment’s hesitation,” Kelly said.
Asked why South Korea would object to this type of boost to its security capabilities, Kim cited “concerns about China’s reaction and military’s priority of procurement” – meaning the preferred order in which the ROK military would choose to purchase the system, as there are certain other priorities coming first.
However, he also said that, even South Korea does take into account China’s wishes on this issue, it won’t necessarily have to on future security issues due to the unique nature of this issue, in which South Korea could potentially help the U.S. nullify a major offensive capability of the North’s – and the PRC’s.
“Ballistic missile defense, while seems like a purely defensive system, in effect offsets neighboring countries’ long-distance nuclear delivery capacity,” he said. “This is why Russia is so sensitive against the U.S.’s deployment of BMD systems in Europe.
“China’s concern might be exaggerated but isn’t groundless at all. And this doesn’t mean that Seoul has to consult other security issues with Beijing later on. It’s just this one that affects China directly.”
THE COST OF DEFENSE
‘If the ROK was to build or purchase BMD, it would need to have something comprehensive in order to counter a significant amount of DPRK launchers, enough to make the DPRK command think twice about launching missiles’
Another issue, one analyst suggested, may be simple dollars and cents, namely the cost of paying for a broad enough defense system to counteract the Northern threat.
“One of the main things that I would see as an issue is the whole launcher vs interceptors numbers game,” said Scott LaFoy, a researcher on political and military affairs on the Korean Peninsula. “If the ROK isn’t buying or building literally billions of dollars’ worth of interceptor missiles, then they are only theoretically stopping a few missiles from entering their airspace, in the event of an escalated conflict.
He noted that the government of Taiwan, another East Asian state with a legitimacy dispute, has courted controversy over purchasing expensive missile defense systems that only provided partial protection from People’s Republic of China’s missile arsenal.
“In a warfighting situation it is argued that (Beijing) would expend a very large amount of (missiles) early on to soften the island (of Taiwan) and ensure a swift surrender before the Americans arrive,” LaFoy said. “So while the PRC missiles are a legitimate threat, the investment made into countering said threat is believed to be insufficient to actually make any difference should a conflict escalate into a real war.
“If the ROK was to build or purchase BMD, it would need to have something comprehensive in order to counter a significant amount of DPRK launchers, enough to make the DPRK command think twice about launching missiles.”
It has elsewhere been argued that cost is one reason why Seoul cannot implement something similar to Israel’s “Iron Dome” technology – an effective deterrent against Hamas’ smaller-scale, more primitive rocket launches – as North Korea has a much greater, more effective arsenal of missiles, meaning that adapting it as an effective deterrent would be overwhelmingly costly.
Grisafi said that such concerns over expense are valid, particularly in the case of the expense of stopping of full-scale bombardment by the North.
“That, of course, doesn’t mean that such systems aren’t useful and won’t help,” he said. “They definitely will, especially in cases of isolated provocations.
“It’s only a full-blown war scenario in which the numbers game becomes an issue and, even then, it certainly wouldn’t hurt South Korea to have interception capability.”
Main picture: UK Ministry of Defence, Flickr Creative Commons