19.06.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Will South Korea become a Haven for American Intermediate-range Missiles?


Since 2017, South Korea has been a home for the American anti-ballistic missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which was installed in Seongju, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, despite strong protests from China and North Korea.

As an integral part of America’s anti-ballistic missile defense system, THAAD is designed to shoot down short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles at high altitude. Additionally, although ostensibly directed toward North Korea, the system’s powerful radars permit the monitoring of other countries’ territories, China’s and Russia’s above all.

Nevertheless, its infrastructure is not totally complete, since some Korean community organizations, in acts of protest, and with tacit support of South Korean authorities, have been blocking highways, requiring helicopter deliveries of diesel fuel and other supplies, which hinders full operations of the launch platforms. We can’t forget that Moon Jae-in promised Beijing earlier that there would be no new American, anti-ballistic missile (ABM) launch platforms in Korea.

On August 2, 2019, the US officially announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which it had signed with the Soviet Union in 1987. The INF, from which the US backed out of unilaterally, had prohibited the deployment of ground-launched and conventional ballistic missiles, and also cruise missiles with ranges between 500 to 5,500 km. The US did not attempt to hide that its withdrawal was aimed at China which, as the US asserted, had been developing and deploying intermediate-range missiles and other types of weaponry, while the US was bound by the treaty’s conditions.

Back on August 3, the US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, stated that Washington would consult with its allies to decide where to deploy intermediate-range missiles. Several news agencies speculated that South Korea could be one of the candidates after which, on August 14, 2019, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) declared that deployment would be a “reckless act of escalation of tensions,” since South Korea would become a target of attack by “neighboring countries, which are determined to never lose sight of the US’s military superiority.”

On January 2, the leftist newspaper “Hankyoreh Shinmun” editorialized about “truly unbelievable reports” that intermediate-range missiles, which the US had intended to deploy in Asia, had ALREADY been shipped to South Korea. The article’s overall implication can be expressed as: “it would be nice to believe that these are groundless rumors, because if this is true, then we will have problems, which will seem like little feathers compared to China’s reaction to THAAD’s deployment.” Even if THAAD, ostensibly, is intended for detection, defensive reaction, and interception of missiles fired from another side, traditional, intermediate-range missiles are designed for offensive operations. Their deployment is equivalent to a declaration of war against China.

On February 14, the Yonhap news agency reported that, according to the Department of the Army, for the 2021 fiscal year, the US plans to allocate 49 million dollars for the development of Seongju County, where the THAAD launch platforms have been installed. This generated the strong belief that the US intended to force Seoul to finance partly the construction of bases under an agreement to share expenses for the support of American troops in South Korea, although according to the 2017 agreement, Washington must cover expenses itself.

South Korean officials, however, stated that, during the corresponding negotiations, the question of bases was not discussed, since South Korea till that time had not conducted a full-scale, environmental study of the Seongju site, and local residents had been protesting determinedly against deployment of the US’s ABM system.

Subsequent rumors and the government’s response to them can be summarized as follows: In the first place, back in 2019, the Pentagon informed South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) that THAAD launch platforms would be reinforced by deployment of additional launch installations, and in South Korea overall, the US would combine into a singe ABM system all of its compounds, including THAAD, ground-launched Patriot ABM systems, and sea-based SM-3 systems This was confirmed by both the military and the Blue House. Moreover, even the name of this unified ABM became known – the Joint Emergent Operational Need (JEON). In the second place, on February 10, Vice-Admiral John Hill, director of the US Missile Defense Agency, stated that the US may begin the deployment of launcher elements throughout Korea in order to increase the complex’s effectiveness. A representative of the administration of South Korea’s president attempted to spin these talks as theoretical deliberations. Later, on February 25, Mark Esper announced that there were no plans to change the region for THAAD’s deployment on the Korean peninsula. In the third place, anonymous “sources within the US defense establishment” reported that the US was planning to push 49 million dollars onto South Korea to compensate for increased costs of keeping US forces in South Korea.

On May 29, 2020, in a surprise overnight operation, aimed at skirting opposition from local residents, South Korea and the United States brought missile defense equipment and other materials onto a base in Seongju.  South Korea’s MND stated that this was done to improve working conditions for the troops and to replace obsolete equipment. Not long afterward, it emerged that the equipment was rockets (whose service life had expired) for launch stations, electronic equipment for data collection, and also power generation equipment that would be used to improve living conditions of the forces based there. In conjunction with military equipment, construction equipment was delivered onto the base to continue the work on upgrading residential units, which has been ongoing since August of last year.

Additionally, a representative of South Korea’s MND noted that the number of new missiles delivered was exactly the same as the old. No additional launch stations were brought onto the base. China was given prior notice, and conjecture that this step was part of preparation of an official deployment of THAAD launch platforms was untrue. The current deployment is considered temporary, until the results of studies taking place now have been received for the evaluation of environmental conditions.

However, back on June 1, South Korean military officials were forced to attempt to refute unpleasant items: the newspaper “JoongAng Ilbo” reported that equipment that was delivered to the base would permit the integration of THAAD with Patriot missiles. Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, noted that the THAAD system is of the latest type, and the missiles’ service life is over 15 years. There is no way they can wear out in three years. Someone pointed out that one of the vehicles, mobilized during the transport, was equipped with a dual mounting cylinder, and rear stabilizer, which are used for launch platform operations.

But the South Korean military officials’ cover was blown by Radio “Free Asia”, which on June 2, citing a Pentagon representative, reported that the movement of military hardware to the Seongju base made it possible to upgrade the launch platforms’ equipment, which enhanced their combat readiness, and capabilities of American soldiers on the Korean peninsula to react to any threat to the US or its allies.

Once again, all this incited rumors that one of the main points of haggling during the prolonged arguments was how much Seoul would pay for the deployment of American troops on its territory, – a reduction in exchange for the launch platforms in Seongju to remain fully operational in any case.

A few respondents to the author went further and offered the following (for now) version. Against a backdrop of economic difficulties, Moon Jae-in does not want, and cannot, pay more (moreover, South Korea’s government emphasized constantly that, although it agreed to the American ABM, it will not pay for it, and if the US is able to force Korea to pay, this will be a loss of face for the current South Korean government), so he agreed to the Americans’ conditions, and is prepared to deploy not only THAAD on his country’s territory, but also something more serious.

In a typical situation, this would arouse popular outrage, but it’s possible to direct it toward the right ends, or deflect criticism, by first provoking North Korea to break an agreement in the military realm between the Koreas. In the end, Park Geun-hye also accepted the decision to deploy THAAD without warning, given the spike in the North’s missile and nuclear activities. Even worse, if one desired, a few of Seoul’s steps may truly be perceived as a preparation for such a provocation – for example, starting to release propaganda flyers into North Korea, which has already evoked a sharp response.

Yes, this will raise problems in relations with China, including cancellation of a visit to Seoul by a Chinese representative, which Moon wants very much, and new economic sanctions. But against the background of intensifying adversarial relations between the USA and China, with Seoul already squeezed between Beijing and Washington, despite the sea of possible unpleasantries from China, America has far many more levers to exert pressure. And this means that the “proud and independent” policies of South Korea will wind up as usual. As it is, Seoul is actively integrated into anti-Chinese projects like “Five Eyes”, and an image of South Korea’s president’s pro-Chinese position is easily demolished by facts.

To the extent that such policies are more inherent to conservatives, one must remember that Moon is not so much a leftist, as a populist, and has met with the US president more times than have any other presidents from the rightist camp.

In the meantime, further development of the US ABM in Korea risks spoiling the country’s relations, not only with China, but also with Russia even though, in 2020, the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Seoul will be celebrated.

As noted some time ago by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the event that medium and intermediate-range missiles are deployed in the Asia-Pacific region, a significant part of Russia’s territory could come under a strike, and “in that case, Russia would be forced to react.”

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