Should South Korea take a step toward enhancing its own defenses against a (potentially nuclear armed) North Korean ballistic missile program, even if that means alienating its neighbors?
For more than a year this has been Seoul’s dilemma regarding the U.S.-developed THAAD missile defense system. Various parties – including different elements with South Korea and foreign powers – have voiced their concerns and taken varying positions regarding a possible THAAD deployment.
With the THAAD issue, South Korea has to consider the costs and benefits of using THAAD versus a potential indigenous system and decide whether its military necessity outweighs the concerns of other regional powers, particularly China and Russia.
ROLE & FUNCTION
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is a ballistic missile defense operated primarily by the U.S. Army, designed to intercept short-to-intermediate range missiles during the terminal (descent) phase. It is considered most effective against Scuds and similar missiles, especially when they are launched at high trajectories (i.e. arcing at a high angle and reaching a high altitude relative to the ground distance traveled). THAAD has an estimated range of 200 kilometers (124 miles) and estimated maximum altitude of 150 kilometers. It also features the AN/TPY-2 X-band radar – the world’s largest ground/air-transportable X-band radar – to detect and track incoming missiles.
The THAAD system’s interceptors do not carry explosive warheads. They instead use the “hit-to-kill” intercept method, meaning they impact the target missile directly and destroy it through kinetic energy. This method is often compared to a bullet hitting a bullet.
This method has been successfully employed in other systems, including the PAC-3 variant of the Patriot surface-to-air missile system. After early developmental testing in the 1990s, the U.S. military conducted at least 39 tests since 2001, 31 of which have been successful. The tests have proven the ability of THAAD to intercept cruise missiles and ballistic missiles fired from the ground and from aircraft both within and out of the atmosphere. The U.S. military has also successfully tested THAAD’s ability to handle multiple simultaneous targets and for interoperability in a network with existing missile defense systems, such as Aegis and Patriot, allowing them to defend against a “raid” by multiple missiles.
After the concept was proposed in 1987, THAAD underwent development and testing throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. THAAD entered service with the U.S. Army in May 2008, when the first THAAD battery was activated at Fort Bliss, Texas. The U.S Army activated additional THAAD batteries in 2009, 2012, and 2014 and plans to eventually field a total of at least six batteries.
The first use of THAAD with regard to the North Korean ballistic missile threat came in June 2009, when then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered a deployment of the system to Hawaii. In April 2013, the U.S. Army deployed a THAAD battery to the Pacific island of Guam, again citing North Korea’s ballistic missiles as the primary concern. Interest in deploying THAAD on the Korean Peninsula began by October 2013, when South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense requested information on the THAAD – as well as the PAC-3 variant of the Patriot system – from the U.S. Department of Defense.
SOUTH KOREAN INTEREST & OPPOSITION
In recent years, Seoul has increasingly preferred to develop and field indigenous military equipment and weapons systems so that they can be more independent in this regard
The U.S. military was hopeful that South Korea would purchase and field THAAD systems, which could be integrated into the U.S. military’s missile defense network in the Pacific region, along with missile defense assets of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. By the summer of 2014, however, Seoul had become reluctant to purchase the U.S.-made THAAD and instead showed a preference toward developing and fielding an indigenous South Korean system to fill the same role, as part of the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system. In recent years, Seoul has increasingly preferred to develop and field indigenous military equipment and weapons systems so that they can be more independent in this regard, as well as have the rights to export these arms.
“Not everyone in Seoul is convinced that this program is as effective as advertised,” said Leonid Petrov, Korean Studies researcher at the Australian National University. “South Korea is already committed to the gradual development of the Korea Air Missile Defense (KAMD) system and recently agreed to purchase 136 Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) interceptors from the U.S. for $1.4 billion.”
During the summer of 2013, Seoul did suggest that it would allow United States Forces Korea (USFK) to deploy its own THAAD battery. This was particularly the case in June, after North Korea conducted a series of missile tests arcing at higher angles and reaching higher altitudes, a tactic believed to be intended to evade South Korea’s existing missile defense capabilities. Since then, however, there has been disagreement within South Korea, including within the government, the National Assembly, and the general public. Members of South Korea’s ruling Saenuri Party have recently voiced support for a USFK THAAD deployment.
“Support has come from some party members for the deployment of the THAAD, a system to defend the country from North Korea’s nuclear missile attack,” said Rep. Yoo Seong-min, during a meeting of the party’s leadership on March 9. “Personally, I have argued for introducing anti-missile systems for a long time, and I also raised the issue in the fall during a government hearing.”
The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), however, has expressed opposition to possible THAAD deployment. Specifically, NPAD spokesman Kim Yung-rok called the South Korean government’s actions “very inappropriate” and said that the presidential administration of Park Geun-hye and the National Security Council may be “inviting diplomatic trouble.” These comments specifically referred to Seoul’s defiant stance toward China’s objection to a THAAD deployment in South Korea.
South Korean opposition to a THAAD deployment has also come from the public, including in the form of formal protests by civic groups. About 120 civic groups together sent representatives to a news conference and read aloud a prepared statement: “The government should decline to deploy THAAD, which would destroy peace in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula and hurt relations between South Korea and China.”
The statements by both the NPAD spokesman and the South Korean civic groups referred to Seoul’s defiant stance toward China’s objections to a THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing has voiced opposition to the presence of THAAD batteries in South Korea – in service with either the South Korean military or USFK.
“U.S. assurances that these systems respond to DPRK missile developments and will not alter the basic military balance in the region still leave the neighbors with a tense feeling that a new heightened confrontation in Korea is entirely possible,” Petrov told NK News. “China and Russia’s concerns about the stationing of U.S.-designed Ballistic Missile Defense equipment in South Korea have led to new tensions and contributed to the collapse of their joint economic projects with the ROK.”
China has shown concern over the deployment of further assets which would be a part of the U.S. military’s large-scale, integrated missile defense network, including the launchers and radars that comprise a THAAD battery. Beijing claims that China – and not North Korea – is the true primary focus of these systems, especially the AN/TPY-2 X-band radar – which has a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). China sees the potential deployment of U.S. missile defense systems in Korea as a similar situation to the deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in Eastern Europe, which, while reportedly there to defend against Iranian missiles, are also well-positioned vis-à-vis Russia.
‘Emergencies’ can be easily manufactured, and weapons systems, like bases, once installed tend to stay’
“The Chinese would certainly regard any deployment as threatening and provocative whatever the stated reasons,” said Tim Beal, author of North Korea: The Struggle against American Power and Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War. “‘Emergencies’ can be easily manufactured, and weapons systems, like bases, once installed tend to stay.”
“South Korea needs to calculate carefully, and with a long-term perspective,” Beal told NK News. “Eventually the U.S. will probably withdraw its military from East Asia, but China will always be there.”
But Bruce Bechtol, associate professor of Political Science at Angelo State University and current president of the International Council on Korean Studies, said that China has no good reason to be antagonized by a THAAD deployment in Korea.
“The PRC knows that South Korea is under more threat of attack from SRBM’s than literally any other nation on earth,” told NK News. “Their angst is a result of paranoia that the system will somehow be used by the USA against China. This is a not a legitimate concern, and should not be a factor in decisions made by either the Blue House or the White House.”
China’s proximity to Korea and status as a major regional power – one much closer to Korea than the U.S. – as well as China’s status as South Korea’s largest trading partner have caused some Koreans to be concerned about China’s objections. Recently, however, Seoul has rejected China’s concerns, saying they should not be a factor in whether or not South Korea chooses to allow a THAAD deployment.
“Neighboring countries must not try to influence our defense policy,” South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok said at a press briefing, March 17. “They can have their own opinions, but we will judge the situation and make a decision based on our own military interests if the U.S. government makes a decision and requests a consultation. That is our government’s consistent position.”
Robert Kelly, associate professor of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, said that this was the right move for Seoul. According to Kelly, South Korea should not “knuckle under” to Beijing’s demands on the issue, as it would set a regrettable precedent for the future, especially given that North Korea’s nuclear program potentially represents an “existential threat” to the South.
Russia has also expressed objections to a THAAD deployment in Korea. Russian ambassador to South Korea Alexander Timonin referred to a potential deployment as “unilateral and negative” on the part of the U.S. during an interview with South Korean media March 19. “We believe this can increase tension not only on the Korean Peninsula but in Northeast Asia,” said Timonin. Moscow and Beijing share a mutual objection to increased U.S. military presence and capability in Northeast Asia, especially involving a system that covers such large areas and integrates local military forces into the U.S. military’s networks.
Along with China and Russia, North Korea has voiced its own strong opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. In September, an editorial in Pyongyang’s state-run Rodong Sinmun accused the U.S. of trying to “overpower the neighboring big powers” and argued that the move was part of a U.S. military strategy designed to “pressurize potential challengers in the region, China in particular.” More recently, in March, the Korean Central News Agency said that the “deployment of THAAD will pose a threat to the security on this land and bring burden to the south Korean economy,” and that the U.S. is “pushing forward its moves to deploy THAAD for achieving its military purpose and realizing its ambition for hegemony.”
WILL IT DEPLOY?
Because South Korea’s military is strongly leaning toward developing and fielding its own missile defense system with the same capabilities as THAAD, two questions are now the primary concerns regarding THAAD in Korea: Will USFK will deploy THAAD within Korea itself and, if so, where and other what conditions?
The U.S. military has stated that it would only deploy THAAD to South Korea ‘in full consultation’ with Seoul and would not do so unilaterally
It has yet to be decided whether or not USFK will deploy a THAAD battery on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. military has stated that it would only deploy THAAD to South Korea “in full consultation” with Seoul and would not do so unilaterally. Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense announced March 19 that senior U.S. and ROK military officials will discuss the deployment of THAAD during regular defense talks in Washington in April, “albeit unofficially.” Supporting the idea of deploying THAAD, General Curtis Scaparrotti, commanding general of USFK, called upon the U.S. and South Korea to implement a layered ballistic missile defense capability in a written testimony to the U.S. House appropriations subcommittee on defense March 19.
Although no decision has been made yet regarding a regular deployment of THAAD in Korea, USFK revealed March 12 that it had conducted site surveys last year in order to determine suitable locations for THAAD deployments. It was then revealed on March 15 that the U.S. military has made contingency plans to deploy THAAD to South Korea in an emergency situation. The results of USFK’s site survey could be used for such emergency deployment plans as well as planning for a theoretical routine deployment in the event South Korea approves it. Among the sites surveyed were locations in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province; Wonju, Gangwon Province; and Kijang in Busan. South Korean media reported a fourth site under consideration, Daegu, on March 19. All four locations feature a large airfield with a military presence, making them suitable locations for a rapid deployment of THAAD from the U.S. by aircraft which already have military administrative and logistics support in place.
The U.S.-made Patriot – currently the predominant missile and air defense system in South Korea – was primarily designed for defending smaller areas against enemy air attacks and direct missile strikes. Seoul fields the PAC-2 variant while the U.S. military has the newer PAC-3 deployed on the peninsula. The maximum altitude of Patriot is only a little over 24 kilometers and the maximum range against ballistic missiles for even the PAC-3 is only about 35 kilometers.
The THAAD system is better suited to defend a wider area against incoming missiles and intercept threats further out than the Patriot. Having a greater range on an interceptor increases the chances of success since the system can begin attempts to intercept earlier and still have time for another in the event of a miss (later attempts could also be made by the Patriot if the target enters its range). The THAAD system also has a much better capability to intercept missiles that come in on higher trajectories.
As a defensive system, it would be more beneficial to have THAAD in place before a crisis has begun, rather than after
At this time, the U.S. appears dedicated to making a THAAD deployment in South Korea possible, whether as a normal part of USFK, or as part of contingency deployments in an emergency situation. As a defensive system, it would be more beneficial to have THAAD in place before a crisis has begun, rather than after. The U.S. military likely hopes that Seoul will permit a routine deployment of THAAD. South Korea will continue to pursue its own missile defense system with similar capabilities. As North Korea continues to improve its ballistic missile force, better and more robust missile defense systems will be increasingly important and necessary for South Korea.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
Rob York contributed to this report.
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