THAAD – Deploy Or Not To Deploy: Moon’s New Challenge – Analysis

The decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea was taken by the conservative government of Park Guen-hye. This was in pursuance of the hard-line policy chosen by the Park administration towards North Korea. The new liberal President Moon Jae-in is opposed to this deployment. Not only he feels that the decision was taken in haste without following the prescribed democratic processes but also feels that the decision does not in any way going to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile development issues. Rather, feels Moon, it complicates the security environment, which is already vitiated by multiple factors and opposing perspectives of nations concerned about the region’s security.

Now the situation is: can Moon reverse the decision to pull out THAAD, which is already deployed, and ask the US to remove from the place of deployment? That could be difficult. Moon is aware that both Russia and China are vehemently opposed to the THAAD deployment as their security comes under the radar of the THAAD and would, therefore, welcome if the same is removed. In such a situation, it would pose new challenge for Moon on how to manage South Korea’s alliance relationship with the US, its main security guarantor.

Taking a realistic point of view from the perspective of the region’ security, the Moon administration is unlikely to change the agreement reached by his predecessor Park government on the deployment of the anti-missile system and is likely to continue working closely with Washington. That could be a pragmatic approach in the interest of preserving the alliance relationship with the US and not risk derailing it by abrogating the agreement on THAAD deployment. With a view to clear doubts on Moon administration’s stand on the THAAD, Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s top national security advisor clarified that the decision to postpone the full deployment of the THAAD system was because a review of its environment impact, a domestic measure to ensure a democratic process, was pending, and therefore did not construe its removal. Chung conceded that the decision to introduce THAAD was made to protect South Korea and the US forces in South Korea from a growing threat from North Korea and therefore reversing that decision could be problematic for the Moon administration.

Moon’s stand on THAAD is well known. During the election campaign, he had promised to review the THAAD deployment decision. China was concerned as the system’s powerful radar can penetrate deep into its territory, undermining its stability and unsettling the regional balance. There is also a view that the system could be ineffective to deter North Korea, the purpose for which it was decided to deploy, which is why it makes sense to remove it. Such an argument lacks conviction, however. That makes Moon’s position tricky.

China argues that THAAD deployment would do little to deter the missile threat from North Korea while allowing the US military to use its radar to look deep into its territory and at its own missile systems. Beijing also fears that THAAD deployment in South Korea would open the door to a wider deployment of the US missile defense systems, possibly in Japan and elsewhere. South Korean companies have already faced product boycotts and bans on Chinese tourists visiting South Korea. China however has denied discriminating against them.

With the intent to use THAAD for defending against North Korean missiles, two launchers of the full six-launcher THAAD battery, as well as its radar, were already installed near the south-eastern city of Seongju before Moon took power. Moon can ill afford to order its removal as such a decision could risk alliance relationship with the US. Moon’s strategy seems to be buying time and delay installing the additional four additional launchers based on the argument that environmental assessment ought to be completed first, which may take well over a year. This period could provide time for Moon to judge public mood and create environment for public endorsement against its deployment.

The THAAD battery consists of six truck-mounted launchers that can fire up to 48 interceptor missiles, fire control and communication equipment, and powerful X-band radar officially known as AN/TPY-2. There could be no definite answer at present if Moon could keep his campaign pledge to re-examine the THAAD deployment because a request for the withdrawal of the system’s components could severely undermine ties with the US. If the US decides to pull out the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korean soil, Moon shall be in no position to defend his country from potential aggression from North Korea and therefore cannot afford to displease its most important ally.

Position of the US

Moon is scheduled to have a summit meeting with President Donald Trump in late June 2017 and is expected to discuss measures to strengthen the alliance relationship and how to address the growing threat from North Korea’s weapons programs. The Trump administration is concerned that North Korea conducted two nuclear tests in 2016 and numerous tests of various missiles since then in defiance of UN sanctions, the latest being on June 8 when it tested a new type of land-to-sea missile off its east coast. The long-term aim of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the continental mainland US with a nuclear weapon.

Trump has chosen to adopt a tough and hard-line stand on North Korea after the latter test-fired a string of missiles and ratcheted up tensions, something Trump said “won’t happen”. He has also made it clear that all options are on the table, including military strike. Even the defence secretary Jim Mattis warned that North Korea poses the most urgent threat to international peace and security, calling the regime’s weapons program a “clear and present danger” to all.

Taking a larger security perspective of the region and knowing well China’s soft spot for North Korea, the objection to THAAD deployment by China and Russia is viewed by the US in a larger context of “Great Power competition”, which makes THAAD more relevant for the US to deploy. The US is worried that both China and Russia are gaining military assertiveness and placing long-held global security protocol to risk. Washington is unwilling to concede if China and Russia wish to disrupt the key aspects of international order so painstakingly built since the end of World War II. Under this circumstance, Moon would face uphill task if he wants to do away with the THAAD deployment.

Slow Walk for Moon

In this situation, Moon would be constrained in his intended policy reversal stance. He is soon to find that increased diplomacy and legal manoeuvres alone might not bail him out from the dilemma that he faces on the THAAD missile defense system. Moon made his policy towards North Korea well known that it would be less confrontational and more engagement as means to reduce tensions but unless he gets the right response from Kim Jong-un, that could be a non-starter. THAAD presents a crucial test for his strategy to balance between supporting for the US alliance while seeking increasing cooperation and outreach with China and North Korea.

For the US, the THAAD battery is critical for defense against Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. Rejecting the THAAD by South Korea therefore could strain the alliance and undermine the agreed upon extended deterrence and containment strategy. Moon can ill afford to strain South Korea’s alliance relationship with the US as a review on THAAD could mean questioning the posture and the deployment of US forces in South Korea. Moon cannot afford to expose his country’s security to such vulnerability.

At the same time, open support for THAAD by Moon could mean alienating Beijing and rendering his engagement strategy with North Korea rudderless, as both vehemently oppose THAAD. In particular, Pyongyang sees the THAAD deployment as another attempt by the US to increase its military presence in the region and a larger game plan for eventual invasion.

There are domestic opposition as well in South Korea to THAAD deployment. Residents close to the site have expressed concerns over the possible negative health effects of the system’s powerful radar, besides exposing them to the danger of a possible attack by North Korea. Moon therefore could find him tight-walking.

In order to satisfy the domestic constituency, Moon suspended a deputy defense minister for not reporting the delivery of four additional THAAD launchers in an apparent attempt to bypass any oversight from his administration. He also ordered an environmental study of the site, which could mean further delaying the deployment schedule. In the meantime, efforts are being made if a national consensus could be reached on this controversial issue.

South Korea's Moon Jae-In. Photo Credit: VOA, Wikipedia Commons.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-In. Photo Credit: VOA, Wikipedia Commons.

It may be recalled, the decision to deploy THAAD battery system was taken by the Park administration in haste to deal with the North Korean threat. A THAAD battery is normally operated with six launchers, two of which were installed in late April 2017, days before Moon took office on 10 May. When Moon suddenly found in early June 2017 that four more launchers had arrived in South Korea, he suspended the deputy defense minister who failed to mention them in policy briefings in late May. Moon felt that the Defence Ministry “intentionally dropped” mentioning the arrival of the four launchers. Investigation then found that Deputy Minister for Defence Policy Wee Seung Ho had ordered ministry officials not to write clearly about the four launchers in policy reports, which led Moon to act. The argument Wee gave in his defence that South Korean and the US militaries decided not to publicise the four launchers’ arrival lacked merit as the President was kept in dark about such an important security matter.

Moon’s engagement policy towards North Korea

Under this circumstance, can Moon hope to succeed on his policy of engaging with the North? That is another question that has no easy answer. After Moon took power, his government made efforts to increase inter-Korean exchanges and make humanitarian aid to rebuild trust. Pyongyang has remained unresponsive to such gestures. Responding to Moon’s engagement strategy towards North Korea, aid and religious groups made requests to the Moon administration for approval to establish contacts. The National Assembly also called for the renewal of reunions of families that were separated by the Korean War and the partition of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II. Pyongyang did not approve these exchanges, citing South Korea’s support for sanctions against the Kim Jong-un’s government as an impediment to cooperation. Sections of South Koreans keen to make peace with the North appealed the Moon administration to drop sanctions and restore economic ties, including the Kaesong Industrial complex that employed thousands of North Koreans and the Mount Kumgang tourism project. As of now, it seems to be one-sided love or what is called “jak sarang” in Korean. It remains to be seen how much patience the Moon administration has to pursue both sanctions and offer of humanitarian aid to bring about peaceful change on the Korean peninsula.

Likely Future

The likely scenario in the coming time is that Moon would soon find THAAD as a long-term issue that cannot be resolved soon. What might likely to happen in the coming time is that the four undisclosed launchers will not be deployed and the two deployed ones will not be withdrawn. That would leave South Korea-China relations to uncertain future. South Korea is unlikely to be in a position to take any unilateral decision to stop THAAD deployment. That decision would rest on the US. If the THAAD is withdrawn, it will surely represent a significant challenge to the US-South Korea alliance relationship. Since South Korea would be constrained to reject THAAD not to damage ties with the US, can there be any possibility of the US and China reaching some sort of understanding, according to which the US agrees to withdraw THAAD without embarrassing the Moon administration? That could be wishful thinking.

*Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. E-mail: [email protected] Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.


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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Professor (Dr.) Rajaram Panda is currently the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University in Japan. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of either the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]

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