The implementation of THAAD deployment to South Korea casts a far-reaching impact on South Korea’s politics after the Constitution Court’s ruling to fire President Park Geun-hye. It creates difficulties for the next administration to reconsider the controversial deployment. It complicates Korea’s relations with its neighbors. It could be a beginning of change to the existing security order in the Northeast region of Asia.
The rolling out of the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery is a first concrete step that the Trump administration has taken to strengthen the deterrent against the threats of North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles.
On the night of March 6, about 15 hours after North Korea test-launched four Scud-ERs simultaneously that flew over 1,000 kilometers into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, two THAAD launch vehicles rolled off the C-17 aircraft at Osan U.S. Air Force Base.
The arrival of the first batch of THAAD components and the launching of DPRK missiles coincided on the same day. The C-17 carrying the equipment took off from Fort Bliss, Texas. Considering the C-17’s speed and unrefueled flight range, the aircraft must have left Texas before the missile launch.
However, the public release of a video of disembarking provokes curiosity, since a deployment operation is carried out normally in secret. It may send a message that the deployment will be a done deal before a would-be political transition in South Korea.
The ROK defense ministry said such necessary requirements as an environmental impact survey, land grant procedures according the SOFA agreement, and site preparations for housing the THAAD battery will be completed in one or two months before the inauguration of a new president. There is opposition to the deployment from local residents and the political parties, one of which is likely to come into power within 60 days.
A heated controversy has resurfaced with respect to the system’s effectiveness on North Korea and its political and economic cost. Critics highlight its limited capability to defend against a multitude of incoming missiles over the short deep of the Korean theater. Some view the issue in the context of a big power game between the U.S. and China, arguing that Korea should not become a part the U.S. missile defense system against China and Russia. Some even say that it is to defend Japan and the U.S., not South Korea.
China has begun imposing economic pressure on the South by closing South Korean business in China, restricting Chinese tourists to the South, and publicly expressing displeasure with Seoul. China even reveals an explicit military threat, by talking about targeting the THAAD base in the South. China and Russia argue that THAAD destroys the regional strategic balance. There is concern that China may become less interested in working with Seoul and Washington on the North Korean issue.
Proponents point to advancing nuclear and missile threats from the North, and they believe THAAD is the best system so far to deal with the enemy’s ballistic missiles. They support Washington’s position that the THAAD is a defensive system deployed only against North Korea, and it does not threaten China’s security. If China had been more cooperative to reign in Pyongyang, the air defense system would not have been necessary. Some favor a conditional deployment: if the nuclear and missile issue were resolved, the deployment would be undone.
U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson will travel to Beijing after visiting Tokyo and Seoul beginning March 15. However, it will be difficult for him to change China’s mind. The Chinese foreign minister on March 8 renewed Beijing’s strong demand for suspension of THAAD deployment.
The undertaking of the system’s deployment was not a surprise: the U.S. and the ROK had agreed to expedite it during Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit to Seoul last month and during Trump’s recent call to the acting South Korean president. On the other hand, the public exposure of the deployment in advance of the necessary preparations for basing the battery for operation was a surprise.
The Trump administration is still reviewing options on North Korea, including a preventive strike that Obama considered and ruled against, redeployment of tactical nukes to Korea, cyber attack, more sanctions, more deterrence, and any new options never considered before. Dialogue is still on the table, although Kim Jong-un created more obstacles to engagement. Can Trump turn the THAAD deployment into a proposition for The Art of the Deal on the North? What’s your take?
Tong Kim is a Washington correspondent and columnist for The Korea Times. He is also a fellow at the Institute of Korean-American Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.