The Thaad conundrum

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The Thaad conundrum

The latest hot potato issue on the political and diplomatic front is Washington’s alleged plan to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in South Korea. Politicians, journalists, scholars and defense experts differ on the likelihood of South Korea hosting the anti-missile system that can cover a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). China is vehemently against such an idea. Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Qiu Guohong made Beijing’s opposition clear in a forum in Seoul last week, according a report by the JoongAng Sunday. He said Beijing believes the deployment of the U.S. antiballistic missile system was not to deter North Korean aggression - suggesting China takes it to be a response to its own capacity to attack South Korea.

The controversy heightened as Seoul and Washington are likely to make another delay in the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean military forces planned for 2015 official when defense ministers meet this week for annual Security Consultative Meeting. There is speculation that the Thaad deployment is a part of a deal Washington is suggesting in return for agreeing to reschedule the planned handover of wartime operational control.

Critics say the missile system, which South Korea would have to purchase, could end up damaging ties with China and do little to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. All sides seem to have a point. But Seoul remains mum on the issue, merely repeating that South Korea and the U.S. have not discussed the matter through any formal channel. Seoul may have to resort to ambiguity on sensitive issues in order not to get too involved in the rivalry between the U.S. and China. But its silence has only irked its neighbor and divided opinions at home.

What has been confirmed so far is that the U.S. Forces in South Korea has asked the Pentagon for Thaad deployment in Korea, but Washington has yet to make a decision or propose to discuss the matter with Seoul. Even if Washington wants to deploy the Thaad system in Korea, it needs approval from the South Korean government. If it agrees to the plan, Seoul will maintain that the U.S. fully shoulder the cost of the installation. Seoul’s other position is that the Thaad will help improve South Korea’s deterrence of an attack by North Korean, but won’t pose any threat to China or any other neighbors. China’s missiles mostly boast of higher altitude and are beyond Thaad’s maximum strike coverage of 140 kilometers. Seoul must not sit on its hands as speculation goes wild. But it must come up with a suitable way to explain the situation.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 21, Page 34

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