Koreans live in a tough geopolitical neighborhood. Since the beginning of recorded history they have been attacked by Japanese from the east and Chinese and Mongols from the west. Since the Japanese were defeated in World War II, few Koreans fear they will come under attack from either the west or east. Today the biggest worry is the North Koreans, who routinely threaten their South Korean brothers and sisters with destruction, and occasionally carry out their threats with minor provocations.
Koreans still suffer from a “shrimp among whales” syndrome. Although they have become a developed country with a high international profile, thanks to their globally marketed products and the popularity of “hallyu” pop culture, they often see themselves as caught between the United States on the one hand and China on the other.
Anti-missile or anti-China?
A recent case is the decision to let the Americans install a THAAD anti-ballistic missile battery to help defend against an attack from North Korea. The decision would appear to be entirely justified in the face of the Kim regime’s expanding missile program and continuing threats to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire.” However, because the battery is designed and operated by the Americans, the Chinese and Russians claim to view it as a direct threat to their security, and consequently have lobbied South Korea to forgo this means of protecting themselves.
The arguments that China, and to a lesser extent Russia, have voiced are somewhat contradictory. One argument is that THAAD is not for protection against North Korea’s missiles, but instead will be targeted at their own missiles. This is a strange argument on two counts. First, few Koreans have even thought about the possibility of being attacked by Chinese or Russian missiles. Second, it is widely acknowledged that THAAD would have very limited effectiveness in combating an all-out ICBM attack from a major military power.
A more coherent objection is that the radar system used by THAAD would provide the United States with valuable intelligence about everything that goes on in Chinese and Eastern Russian airspace. It would be surprising, however, if the United States did not already have this kind of capability.
That the chief reason for deploying THAAD is to counter North Korean missiles seems to be overlooked. One Chinese article belittled the North Korean threat by asserting that “North and South Korea have gotten themselves into an extremely foolish negative security competition.” Yet the author admitted that “In the past, only North Korean missiles targeted South Korea.” He then added—and this is probably why the Chinese censors deleted the online article a few days later — that “in the future, North Korean, Chinese, and Russian missiles will target targets within South Korea.”
Whatever the capabilities of THAAD as a means of countering North Korean missiles, it would not be far fetched to suspect that the deployment is at the same time an American and South Korean political message to China. “If you are unwilling to do more to curtail North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, we will have to take steps that you may find inconvenient.” This inconvenience is nothing compared to the trouble that the United States and South Korea have gone to defend against North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea objects
And what of North Korean objections to THAAD? They begin with the preposterous denial that North Korea poses any nuclear or missile threat to South Korea. Instead, THAAD “may bring a new Cold War to the Asia-Pacific” and “upset the regional strategic balance and contain China and Russia,” thus appealing for the sympathy of Pyongyang’s Cold War allies. Interestingly, the article continues with the claim that “It is the US ulterior purpose to neutralize the attack capability of rapidly developing Asian countries … and thus hold political, economic and military hegemony over the region.” So North Korea was targeting South Korea after all!
Time will tell if China undertakes any concrete measures to try to punish South Korea for the THAAD deployment, for example by curtailing economic relations. Despite its objections, Russia has little political or economic leverage over South Korea. North Korea, as usual, has made more threatening gestures.
After the decision to deploy THAAD was announced, the North Korean Artillery Bureau promised to take “physical counter-action to thoroughly control THAAD … from the moment its location and place have been confirmed.” South Koreans were reminded that “the Korean People’s Army has long put not only all the aggressive war means of the enemies but even their attack and logistic bases against the DPRK in the precision sighting strike range.”
A few days later, South Korea announced that THAAD would be deployed far to the south of the inter-Korean border, which incidentally places it beyond the range of North Korea rockets and artillery but not beyond the range of the North’s ballistic missiles. From this location THAAD will protect about two-thirds of South Korea, excepting the heavily populated Seoul area. Included in the protected range will be most US military installations and South Korea’s military headquarters. It was decided that Seoul, close to the border, could not be protected by THAAD. Instead, Seoul’s PAC-2 anti-missile defense will be upgraded to PAC-3.
South Korea’s decision to make
Chinese and North Korean threats have rippled through South Korean society. Many South Koreans fear that Chinese will stop visiting Korea and buying Korean-made products. Others believe Korea should be cultivating better relations with China and distancing itself from the United States. Still others, especially those who live near the proposed THAAD site, are (needlessly) concerned about the radar’s impact on their health, and also fear provoking a North Korea attack. Overall, however, more South Koreans support THAAD deployment (50%) than oppose it (32%).
Ultimately, THAAD in South Korea is not about China or Russia but about North Korea. South Koreans have long lived under a North Korean threat and they are entitled to defend themselves. It seems hypocritical of China and Russia to tell South Korea how to protect itself. Although South Korea happens to be situated in the middle of major powers, this is not the cause of its problems with North Korea. If the United States again comes to South Korea’s rescue, it is a credit to the US-ROK alliance, and a discredit to the Chinese and Russians, who are unwilling or unable to extend protection to South Korea by reining in North Korea.
Dr. Kongdan Oh is a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Her most recent book is Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, second edition.