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The THAAD Debate Returns

During his visit to Seoul this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sent South Korean policymakers into a tizzy when he suggested to a group of U.S. service members that, given the North Korean threat, it was time to bring Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD to the Korean peninsula. Seoul’s displeasure with Kerry’s remarks caused officials from both the U.S. State and Defense Departments to rush to clarify the secretary’s statements. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Winnefeld, at a CSIS conference on missile defense last week twice mentioned, slowly and emphatically, that the U.S. was not in talks with the ROK government over THAAD and, per the alliance treaty, it would not take any action the Koreans oppose.

Why do U.S. policymakers continue to propose THAAD deployment for the peninsula when they know it causes their ally such consternation? The going speculation is that U.S. officials repeatedly raise the issue in public statements but have yet to officially ask the Koreans to deploy the system because they hope to build public support for the plus $1 billion system in Korea so that the Koreans will pay for it. Polls in fact show that, despite opposition from the left, there is general support for THAAD among the Korean population-- but if the U.S. bears the financial cost. An alternative theory is that U.S. policymakers are attempting to strengthen public support for THAAD deployment on the peninsula, building on the strength of the broad bipartisan backing for any effort to deter the North Korean threat. A third explanation, and the one I find most plausible, is that U.S. policymakers continue to take an indirect approach to promoting THAAD because they fear a direct proposal could be rebuffed by Seoul, dealing a significant blow to the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Yet, the argument for THAAD deployment is intensifying. Last week North Korea announced that it has the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on a missile. Earlier this month, the North Koreans tested a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) which the U.S. believes could have a limited operational capability in a few years. Nor would deploying THAAD on the peninsula be the first such deployment on China’s periphery. Last year, Japan welcomed the missile defense system’s deployment on its territory after short consultations and a formal study before the system was deployed later in the year.

The fact that in the face of such a rising threat there is such controversy over THAAD deployment on the peninsula reflects Seoul’s perception of itself, its perception of China, and its precarious position between China and the United States. The reason the United States must tread lighter with the Koreans than with the Japanese is the more nuanced relationship between the Koreans and the Chinese. The Park Geun-hye administration made it a point to improve Korea-China relations upon coming into office. As a result, according to a recent Asan Institute public opinion survey, favorability ratings of China in Korea are at an all-time high. And the majority of Koreans, 70.8 percent, believe relations with China will continue to improve. In turn, China is also pursuing closer relations with South Korea in hopes it can garner support for its policies in the region. Sixty percent of Koreans see China as a cooperative partner while only 32 percent see it as a competitor. If South Koreans are wary of China’s rise, most do not believe China poses a direct military threat to Korea. Indeed, a plurality of Koreans now believe that China will help them in a conflict with the North—or at least not interfere on the North’s behalf.

In contrast, according to a Japanese government poll, over 90 percent of Japanese believe relations with China are bad. A Pew Research Center poll tracks 68 percent of Japanese as viewing China as a military threat, even if it is recognized as a growing economic partner. Only 11 percent see China as a friend.

I’ve covered the THAAD debate in a previous post where I argued that China’s objection to the system’s deployment stems from the efficacy of its radar system (which enables it to “see” at least 1,000 km) and its interoperability with missile defense ships and other land-based missile defense batteries that give the United States more flexibility in deploying its assets in the region. It facilitates the deployment of AEGIS equipped naval vessels, which aren’t plentiful, in support of other missions. While this might bolster U.S. capabilities in Asia to a degree, and it might curtail the efficacy of China and Russia’s short and medium ballistic missiles if they target Korea, the bigger issue (and one that I missed in my previous post) is that China objects to THAAD’s deployment in order to interfere with the U.S.-ROK alliance and to test how far Korea will go to accommodate China’s interests. Deploying THAAD would send a strong message that the alliance is alive and well.

To influence Seoul, China issued stern public statements expressing its disapproval of THAAD when U.S. policymakers brought it up earlier this year. After Secretary Kerry’s comments last week, the Global Times, a Party tabloid, printed an editorial saying deploying THAAD to the peninsula would reduce Korea to cannon fodder.

China’s tough rhetoric seems to have backfired and has strengthened Korean public opinion in support of THAAD. According to an Asan Institute for Policy Studies public opinion survey from May 18, 2015, approval of THAAD has increased from the low 50s to 61.4 percent with only 20.3 percent of Koreans opposing it. However, the debate in the National Assembly and among elites continues. Elite opinion remains divided and their comments allow for more room for Korea to maneuver[CPF1] . The Koreans recognize that THAAD will likely increase their security. They also recognize that while they do not want to antagonize China, they cannot grant it veto power over Korean security policy either.

Aside from the China issue, I expect the Koreans will not abandon development of their indigenous missile defense program, the KAMD, and given their very unfavorable view of the Japanese, they will continue to resist any move that smacks of a trilateral missile defense framework with the United States and Japan. Absent any shocking event, the best solution for all involved seems to involve the United States deploying THAAD on the peninsula under the rationale that it is needed to protect its troops. This provides cover for Seoul, and Washington gets what it wants.

Photo Credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency

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