17.07.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

THAAD in South Korea: Reaction and Potential Consequences

435345345345The decision to deploy the American ABM system in South Korea triggered a negative reaction in the Northeast Asia. Despite Park Geun-hye’s assurances that this measure was taken solely for the protection of South Korea and its population, and that THAAD ABM systems do not infringe upon the security of the neighboring countries, the reaction of the latter was far from approval.

The response of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was quite predictable. According to the statement issued by the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army and published on Monday by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang will “take the most decisive physical countermeasures”. North Korean armed forces “are capable of taking harsh and strong countermeasures” to stop the U.S. from unleashing a war by deploying THAAD ABM system. The statement also contains an overworked threat to turn South Korea into “a sea of fire.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation made a resolute remark commenting on the situation, “We have been consistently warning that this decision would prove hazardous,” but its warning was disregarded. THAAD deployment “undermines the strategic balance established both in and beyond the Asian-Pacific Region” and is capable of “whipping up tension in the region, which will make resolution of the complicated situation on the Korean Peninsula, including its denuclearization, ever more challenging.”

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Igor Morgulov held scheduled consultations with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea Kim Hyoung-zhin on July 8 in Moscow, where he expressed the most serious concern of the Russian Party.

In its official statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China expressed its “extreme discontent and strong protest.” When making their decision, Seoul and Washington disregarded the opinion of interested countries. It is clear that deployment of American THAAD ABM systems in South Korea will undermine the process of denuclearization and peacekeeping on the Korean Peninsula. This decision offsets the efforts to resolve the Korean crisis through negotiations and consultations, harms strategic interests of the countries in the region, including China, and destabilizes the strategic balance in the region. The same day, the U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus and South Korean Ambassador to China Kim Jang-soo were expelled from Beijing.

Representatives of the regions where THAAD ABM systems might be deployed warn against this step as well. And they are not only ordinary citizens, but also representatives of the regional administration. This is the opinion of Governor of the North Gyeongsang Province Kim Kwan-yong, “If the decision is taken unilaterally, it will provoke strong protests on the part of five and a half million residents of Taegu and the North Gyeongsang Province.” What is noteworthy, though, is that Governor Kim is not some kind of a dissenter, but a member of the ruling party. Back in February, Kong Jae-kwang, Mayor of Pyeongtaek, the city where several dozens of public organizations began collecting signatures against THAAD, warned that the city “is not suitable for these ABM systems.”

To demonstrate their disagreement, head of the county administration and chairman of the local popular assembly shaved their heads. The statement adopted by the Popular Assembly of Chilgok County reads, “The local popular assembly and residents of the county strongly disagree with the deployment of ABM systems.” A similar position was voiced in the Eumseong County (North Chungcheong Province) and in Busan, which district Kijang was shortlisted among potential THAAD deployment sites. Thus, five out of six areas selected as the sites of deployment of the U.S. ABM systems express discontent with the decision that varies only in magnitude.

Experts also criticize the decision. According to an unidentified influential expert on international sanction problems, whose opinion was published by Rossiiskaia Gazeta, deployment of THAAD ABM systems violates the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution No. 2270 on North Korea adopted just a while ago in response to the 2016 nuclear missile crisis. Clause 49 of this document underscores that the UN Security Council “reiterates the importance of maintaining peace and stability both on the Korean Peninsula and across all Northeast Asia, expresses its commitment to a peaceful, diplomatic and political solution of the situation and welcomes efforts made by the Council members, as well as other States to facilitate a peaceful and comprehensive solution through dialogue and refraining from any actions that might aggravate tensions.” Deployment of THAAD, however, would aggravate the situation on the Korean Peninsula and would contradict with the “maintenance of peace and stability” objective.

Furthermore, in the author’s opinion, presence of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula would sooner contribute to the escalation of tension than to its reduction. The strategic question, which should be asked in this respect, is how the presence of such ABM system would affect the global standoff. The current system of nuclear parity is built upon two principles. The first principle postulates that a missile-nuclear attack launched by another country inflicts an unacceptable harm regardless of whether this country wins or loses in the end. What is clear, though, is that the war would definitely be harmful for the world. The second principle states that, given the speed of a fired missile, the defending party will, most probably, be unable to evacuate its population, but will have enough time to launch a missile in response, thus, rendering both countries vulnerable to destruction from a nuclear attack. Would it make sense to start a no-win war then? Thus far, understanding of meaninglessness and brutality of war helped to maintain peace. But from time to time some countries fall into an illusion that they can (at least hypothetical) overplay the opponent and be quick enough to both launch a missile and counter the opponent’s response, i.e. they believe that they could start war and actually win it.

And in terms of tactics, THAAD presence would exacerbate tension, since if there is a conflict between the United States and China or Russia, the likelihood of the Republic of Korea becoming a target for Chinese or Russian missiles increases manifold. In case of a conflict, the parties will be acting pursuant to tactical reasoning and not humanism. Thus, if there are THAAD ABM systems deployed on the territory of some country, it will be shelled during a conflict. As we see, if THAAD ABM systems are deployed in South Korea, it, being a hostage of somebody’s political games, will automatically become a target of a missile attack.

One of the experts of Rossiiskaia Gazeta maintains the same opinion, “The Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China repeatedly emphasized that deployment of ABM systems would whip up the armament race and aggravate the already heated situation in this troubled region. It is beyond doubt that such actions will not be left unanswered. It is for sure that all THAAD components, including radars, will now be put on the strategic army’s list of potential targets for missile attacks. We warned South Koreans about that. Chinese did the same. Therefore, Russian and Chinese missiles will now have one more target. Sorry, nothing personal.”

The exact consequences of this step will be manifested in the due time. However, even South Korean experts admit that Russian and Chinese relations with South Korean will become more complicated, and that a rumored potential summit of the leaders of Russia and South Korea is not going to materialize. How the unfolding situation will influence the Pyongyang—Beijing—Seoul relation will be discussed in the next article.

P.S.: While the article was being prepared, we had the news that THAAD ABM systems would be deployed in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. This area, which already has Hawk ADM systems, had been assessed as the most efficient and safe in terms of the influence of EMR on the population. There is also one more aspect. Seongju County, being beyond striking distance of the North Korean long-range artillery, provides perfect protection for the American military base in Pyeongtaek and the staff complex in Gyeryong. As for the capital, it is shielded by Patriot 3 air defense systems, which is more effective than THAAD.

The logic behind the selection is like that: to be the most advantageous for the U.S., while provoking the least discontent among population. 

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.