U.S. plans to move forward with deploying its foremost advanced missile defense system, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), to South Korea in emergency situations, has raised hackles in Northeast Asia. For years, the idea of deploying THAAD on the Korean peninsula has been a source of contention between the two treaty allies and China and Russia who now accuse the allies of sacrificing regional security for their own. This is an accusation Seoul has rebuffed in no uncertain terms. However, this latest diplomatic exchange not only highlights the challenging position Korea is in between China, its largest trading partner, and the U.S., its guarantor of security, but also as a factor in the intensifying security competition between the two major powers.
THAAD is the U.S. Defense Department’s premier missile defense system for regional threats. It is capable of destroying short to medium range ballistic missiles by using the kinetic energy of the interceptor to physically hit and destroy an incoming missile as far away as 200 km and up to an altitude of 150km. What sets THAAD apart from existing missile defense platforms on the peninsula, and the major source of disagreement, is the system’s advanced radar component, the AN/TPY-2, which can detect missiles up to 1,000 kilometers away. This range would enable THAAD to detect missiles in Chinese and Russian territory, and perhaps more importantly, deep into the East China Sea. The AN/TPY-2 is also capable of integrating with U.S. and allied AEGIS equipped ballistic missile defense vessels in the region to create a larger robust and networked layered defense.
For the past two years, the U.S. has considered deploying THAAD in Korea on a more permanent basis to protect the 28,500 troops it stations there and it has already conducted site surveys for the system’s deployment. U.S. Forces Korea Commander, General Scaparrotti considers deployment of the missiles a military necessity in the face of the growing ballistic missile threat from North Korea. North Korea continues to develop its ballistic missile capabilities, as evident by recent short range ballistic missile tests conducted earlier in March.
Despite the growing threat, Seoul’s support for the system has vacillated over the years. When Washington first approached Seoul about the system, its Ministry of Defense was in favor of deploying THAAD – but only as long as the US paid for it, and it wasn’t integrated with Korea’s domestic missile defense system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD). The KAMD is a shorter range missile defense system that is unintegrated with U.S. systems. Thus far, Korea has resisted American overtures for it to integrate more closely with the American missile defense network which is also integrated with the Japanese. Until this latest announcement, the Ministry of Defense’s support for THAAD had appeared to be waning, although it had officially refrained from taking a public stance on the issue.
The latest decision to only deploy the system in stated “emergencies” (both THAAD and its radar system are air transportable), suggest a compromise position on the part of the US and Korea to give the Koreans flexibility in the face of Chinese and Russian opposition. The US has sought to allay China and Russia’s concerns over the system by pointing out that THAAD cannot intercept long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, neither country has found this fact reassuring-- both China and Russia gain military advantage over their neighbors from their inventory of short and medium range ballistic missiles. The U.S. understands that China can leverage these types of missiles to keep U.S. forces out of its near abroad. By adding more THAAD into the mix, as it has recently done in northern Japan and Guam, the U.S. is beefing up its largest layer of missile defense to protect its bases in the region and guarantee its continued presence in the region.
China protested when THAAD was deployed to Japan and then dropped the issue. Given the ambiguity of this latest plan to deploy THAAD to Korea in an emergency, China will likely do the same and there will be little fallout for the Sino-Korean relationship until more concrete developments takes place. THAAD is already being hotly debated in the National Assembly; when Korea and the US meet in mid-April for the Korea-US Integrated Defense Dialogue THAAD will likely to be on the agenda.