Tensions in the Korean peninsula continue to remain. North Korea’s nuclear weapon program and missile launch in violation of UN resolutions is at the core of the tension. These are facts universally accepted as behind the tensions. President Donald Trump has added more complications to the prevailing tensions by making controversial statements and warned of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea and declared he would make South Korea pay $1 billion for an advanced missile-defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), whose controversial installation began in April 2017.
Even when rumours and accusations by Pyongyang that Trump has a secret plan to assassinate Kim Jong-un, which is why he would further harden his stance and carry out more provocative acts such as possibly a sixth nuclear test and more missile launch to secure the regime.
This has resulted in more anxiety about what the US, namely Trump, is doing than what the North Koreans are doing. While it remains unclear if Trump is serious about the possibility of war or is he simply indulging in a lot of sabre-rattling. While Kim Jong-un is unlikely to change his policy on further advancing his country’s nuclear program, the deployment of the THAAD has caused ripples in South Korea’s domestic politics as well as evoked strong opposition from China and Russia. The prospect of a liberal candidate opposed to the deployment of THAAD battery becoming the next president in South Korea is likely to add further complicacies to the security scenario in the Korean peninsula.
There is no stoppage of warning from Pyongyang. It has announced that it will carry out another nuclear test “at any time and at any location” set by its leadership. It has already carried out five nuclear tests in the last 11 years and is widely believed to be making progress towards its dream of building a missile capable of delivering a warhead to the continental US, which is why THAAD deployment was felt necessary.
But THAAD has now wider implications to the region’s security as not all stakeholders approve its deployment. Added to this, Trump has said in clear terms that his administration has not ruled out a military strike in response to Pyongyang’s another provocative act. He also says that all options are on the table, without elaborating what they are. There is a lot of fluidity because of conflicting and sometime contradictory statements coming from Washington. This article would analyse the implications of THAAD deployment for South Korea and the region.
South Korea’s stand
The decision to install THAAD was taken by the Park Guen-hye government amid domestic controversy. With her impeachment because of her involvement in scandal and the ensuing election on 9 May, the likelihood of the liberal Democratic Party (Minjoo Party) candidate Moon Jae-in becoming the next president can have significant impact on the nation’s position on THAAD deployment.
Moon has criticised the US for hastily installing the controversial missile system and especially at this particular politically sensitive time by circumventing the nation’s democratic process, and without an environmental assessment or a public hearing. Moon asked if the US administration would make a unilateral decision on such a sensitive issue without following democratic procedures, without ratification or agreement by Congress. Being a frontrunner, if Moon wins, he will immediately move to the Blue House without the usual transition period since Park has been discharged from the post.
The THAAD was set up in South Korea’s Seongju, in North Gyeongsang Province and already declared operation. The deployment faced opposition from people, including the residents of Seongju. Though the objective of the THAAD is to shoot down North Korean missiles, it is obvious that Seoul has been made the main target of the missiles now. Moon has warned that the THAAD deployment could undermine South Korean’s trust in Washington and complicate the two countries’ security alliance.
Moon has been a human rights lawyer and an aide of former president Roh Moo-hyun, and therefore closely associated with the “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea. If Moon wins, as projected, the inter-Korean industrial park may be reopened and dialogue start with North Korea. He also believed that Seoul, rather than Washington, should have the operational control of the military alliance if a war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. Moon also has declared that he would be willing to travel to Pyongyang to have a discussion with Kim Jong-un if preconditions of resolving the nuclear issue are resolved.
The complexity of the THAAD deployment debate centres on the haste with which the US made the system operational with claim of reaching initial intercept capability, or just outside the atmosphere during the missiles’ final phase of flight, despite opposition in South Korea and China’s criticism. Both China and Russia expressed deep concern, arguing that the US system would interfere with their radars and could pose a threat to their security.
The decision to the battery’s deployment was reached in July 2016 in the wake of missile tests by North Korea by then Park government with the US. Tensions heightened after Trump announced tough stance and repeatedly warned that “all options are on the table” regarding Pyongyang. Earlier Washington voiced commitment to the Status of Forces Agreement, under which Seoul was to provide location and infrastructure for THAAD but Trump changed track by demanding that South Korea pay $1 billion for the system.
The military impact of THAAD deployment in South Korea vis-à-vis China, North Korea and Russia shall significantly raise tensions between the nuclear powers and on the Korean peninsula itself. Was the THAAD decision taken because it was felt that Beijing’s influence to rein Pyongyang has declined or was it an over-reaction on the part of the US? There can be no definite answer to this question.
It is true that Beijing is unhappy with Pyongyang’s behaviour but its leverage remains limited owing to its own strategic compulsions. This did not prevent Beijing from halting imports of coal from North Korea in a show of displeasure to an intermediate-range ballistic missile test conducted by North Korea in February.
China was also displeased that Kim Jong-un’s estranged brother, Kim Jong-nam, living under Chinese protection in Macao, was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur airport on February 13 and Kim Jong-un was a suspect in this. Though China agreed to implement UN sanctions against the North over its nuclear and missile testing, Trump expected Beijing to do more. The fact that Trump decided to go ahead with the THAAD deployment despite forceful objections of Beijing was also meant to demonstrate that the US can go alone if Beijing does not come full hug with the US to bring Pyongyang to book. The larger intention of the US also could also be to erode Beijing’s nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis the US and its regional allies.
Long-term Objective of the US
According to a 2015 Johns Hopkins University report, North Korea could have as many as 100 nuclear-tipped missiles by 2020, which is why THAAD deployment became necessary. If this assumption is to be believed, Trump has a deeper and larger game plan not just to rein in Pyongyang but also to guard against Beijing’s possible countermeasures.
Past US Presidents have used both diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions to try and convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and even provided aid. Since such use of carrot and stick policy has not worked, its Plan B to deploy anti-missile system now appeared attractive. Such an anti-missile program is not recent; the US has been developing this since the early 1990s not only to protect the US territory from the intercontinental ballistic missiles produced by North Korea and possibly Iran but also its regional allies such as Japan and South Korea.
With the fear of Pyongyang having perfected a nuclear-tipped ICBM to target the continental US becoming real, THAAD’s deployment now makes more sense from the US perspective. The fear assumes greater dimension and the defensive capabilities of the US might even appear inadequate as Pyongyang continues to surge in serial production of missiles.
At present, the missile defense system of the US is aimed at shielding the nation from nuclear blackmail or terrorism or threat from a rogue state. Both China and Russia are opposed to this on the ground that they will destabilise the existing mutual deterrence between big nuclear powers. Though it is widely feared that North Korea has nearly perfected to field an ICBM capability to strike the continental US with a nuclear warhead, Pyongyang is yet successfully tested it. It is also doubtful if North Korea is capable of putting a nuclear warhead on any of its shorter range ballistic missiles. Yet, the US shall be unwilling to take Pyongyang’s advance in rocket science lightly, which is why THAAD deployment becomes relevant.
What are the strengths of the mobile defense assets that the US has? The THAAD “is a rapidly deployable battery of interceptor missiles designed to shoot down short- or medium-range ballistic missiles in the final stages of its flight”. THAAD’s limitations however are that it can protect defined areas, such as cities or military forces but not the entire country. And yet, there is no better option available now than this.
It transpires that as North Korea continues to surge in its nuclear and missile programs, the US continues to get the heat. Even past four US Presidents had expressed their sense of discomfort living in a state of vulnerability. Lately the US came under greater pressure to strengthen its missile defense capability to be in complete readiness to cope with the North Korean threat.
Even some lawmakers, particularly from Alaska which is closest to target of North Korean missiles, have urged the administration in Washington to step up the country’s missile defense system. The lawmaker from Alaska argues that should North Korea successfully develop a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, the US ought to have a system in place that can shoot down rogue missiles with accuracy. Such a possibility, it is argued, would make Kim Jong-un rethink hard if to fire a missile at the continental US.
Another possibility of secret cyber-attacks to disrupt Pyongyang’s missile tests, a tool that can disable or misdirect launched missiles, can give the Defence Department a Digital Age tool to deal with North Korean missiles. Trump might be tempted to explore this option as well to check North Korea’s future missile launch. Or is it already in operation as proved by North Korea’s recent failed missile launches? This remains in the realm of speculation, however.
North Korea remains undeterred despite sanctions and international pressure and has been strengthening its military capability to protect itself from the threat posed by the presence of US forces in the region. It is firm on its stand that unless the US ends its hostile policy towards Pyongyang and dissolves the US-led UN command in South Korea, it will not give up on its nuclear deterrence. The presence of thousands of US soldiers station in Japan and South Korea continues to unnerve Pyongyang.
Implications for the Region
Given that the deployment of THAAD battery system is controversial already, Trump’s demand to South Korea to pay $1 billion for installing the system adds further to the controversy. Though South Korea quickly rejected the demand, the demand provided fodder to the debates for presidential elections among political parties stating their stances before the electorate. The Liberal party’s front-runner Moon Jae-in has voiced that he would, if elected to the presidency, revisit the agreement reached by the Park government. The Defence Ministry argued that as per the Status of Forces Agreement South Korea provides the land, supports and build related facilities and the US bears the cost of THAAD system’s deployment, operation and maintenance.
Trump further complicated the matter by hinting to terminate the South Korea-US free trade agreement unless the deal is renegotiated for better trade terms for the US. The free trade pact can be terminated 180 days after one side notifies its partner of its intention to finish the deal.
While Moon is opposed to THAAD deployment, conservative People’s Party candidate Ahn supports THAAD as a needed defence measure despite the fact that it would further provoke North Korea and alienate China. Beijing’s opposition to the THAAD deployment rests on the argument that the system’s radar could be used to spy on China and already retaliated by limiting tourism to South Korea, imports of Korean cosmetics and entertainment, besides shutting down some South Korean department stores like Lotte duty free shops in China.
China’s unofficial target on the South Korean economy threaten a dramatic downturn in China-South Korea relations, implying that there is a political dimension to THAAD’s deployment and not just its military utility. It is reported that China took 43 retaliatory actions against South Korea on the THAAD issue.
It is argued that though the deployment of THAAD with its proven ability to defend a North Korean missile attack and therefore undoubtedly a game-changer, its removal would not represent significantly in South Korea’s defence capabilities. If THAAD is removed, it would mean a return to the status quo. The deeper political complexities of Northeast Asian relations would also be eased a bit. Beijing felt that South Korea fell into the US trap by agreeing to deploy THAAD, thereby undermining China-South Korea relations. But for the US, any disruption in China-South Korea relations to be an advantage as South Korea under Park was perceived to have been closer to China and THAAD served its purpose to get South Korea back into its fold. This demonstrates that the political dimension is more important than mere military/defence dimension behind THAAD deployment.
*Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]