Thaad issue should be simmered down: experts

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Thaad issue should be simmered down: experts


As Korea’s diplomatic quandary over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system deepens, the JoongAng Ilbo hosted a roundtable Wednesday to take a detailed look into the situation.

Foreign affairs and military experts urged the government, politicians and the public to treat the issue calmly as a matter of national security, asked Washington to clarify its intention and warned against the debate over Thaad, as the system is known, becoming shrill or overheated.

Thaad is a U.S. missile defense program designed to shoot down missiles closer to their point of origin than current defenses can. Both China and Russia are against deployment of the advanced missile defense system in Korea. China has said it worries that its radar system, which can cover more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), could be used as a method of surveillance against it.

As signs grew that the United States wants the system in Korea as a protection against North Korea’s threats, Beijing stepped up its pressure on Seoul to reject any Thaad deployment. After practicing what it called “strategic ambiguity” for months, Seoul warned Beijing this week not to meddle in its defense policy, although it still said that no decision on Thaad has been made.


A file photo of a test-firing of Thaad. [JoongAng Photo]

The roundtable included Kim Sung-han, international relations professor at Korea University and former vice foreign minister; Park Hwee-rhak, dean of the Graduate School of Politics and Leadership at Kookmin University and a retired Army general; and Kim Jong-dae, editor-in-chief of the journal Defense 21 Plus. They explored the snowballing controversy and some aspects that haven’t gotten wide attention such as who would even pay for Thaad: Seoul or Washington.

“Thaad is a specific weapons system developed by a foreign country, but we are dealing with it with a kind of abnormal national security populism, as if we are showing passionate fandom or dislike toward an idol group,” said Kim Jong-dae.

Park said China has raised the issue of being spied on through Thaad, but technically that could be difficult. Perhaps China simply doesn’t want more powerfully equipped allies of the United States as its neighbor.

“Since Former Defense Minister Kim Jang-soo has been named the new Korean Ambassador to China, he should provide sufficient explanations to the Chinese leaders and resolve misunderstanding,” Park said.

Kim Sung-han said Washington must clarify if it wants to deploy a Thaad battery to protect the U.S. Forces Korea - or if it wants Korea to purchase two to four Thaad batteries.

“Rather than having a premature discussion, Seoul and Washington can talk about it after the North stages another provocation such as a nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile launch,” he said.

The following are excerpts of the roundtable discussion:

Q. The United States wants to deploy Thaad in Korea to deter North Korean threats. How serious are the threats?

Park: Miniaturization of a nuclear weapon normally takes two to seven years after a country’s first nuclear test. The North conducted its first test in 2006, so we must assume that it has succeeded in miniaturization. I guess they have up to 10 plutonium-based bombs and five to six uranium-based bombs. We need to prepare for that.

Kim Sung-han: We must not treat lightly the North’s suspected stockpile of 5,000 tons of biochemical weapons. There is an even higher possibility that the North will use the biochemical warheads than nuclear warheads. The North will behave reasonably, but it may still start an unreasonable nuclear or missile attack due to domestic situations. That’s why we need deterrence.

Because the distance from the rear to the frontline in South Korea is so short, some argued that interception of a North Korean missile is impossible to begin with, while others say we need Thaad for a multi-layer defense.

Kim Jong-dae: We regard a nuclear weapon as an absolute, because defense against it is impossible. Intercepting a nuclear missile with a Patriot missile or a Thaad system is wishful thinking. We buy an insurance policy for our later years, but when the insurance policy has a flaw, our later years become even more miserable. A missile fired by the North will reach the South within a very short period of time. Would it be possible to analyze and intercept it during that time?

Kim Sung-han: After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States managed to accomplish significant progress based on enormous budgets and efforts. The PAC-2 (Patriot Advanced Capability-2) had a reaction time of more than 1 minute, but PAC-3 had it reduced to 45 seconds. In the terminal stage, interception takes 60 to 300 seconds, and 45 seconds is significant progress. Thaad uses a hit-to-kill approach and it is also an improved multi-layer defense system. But we need confirmation to see if it can overcome the problem of defense depth.

Park: The United States is deploying Thaad for a reason. It reportedly conducted 11 tests and succeeded in all interceptions. It was operationally deployed because it satisfied the required operational capabilities. The United States already deployed three Thaad batteries and the United Arab Emirates has decided to purchase one. Although it is not perfect, building a defense network is necessary.

The United States has not made a final decision on the deployment, but it has certainly stirred up a controversy.

Park: If the United States had said it will deploy Thaad to Korea to protect American troops in the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), there would have been no controversy. Because some said Korea is sandwiched between the United States and China in their strategic competition, a controversy was sparked.

Kim Sung-han: Last year, North Korea fired an unusual number of missiles. The United States seemed to think that it will be a serious threat to the South if the North decides to fire a ballistic missile with a high angle to reduce the distance. If the North loads a Rodong missile with a warhead and fires at a high angle, it will land in the South. The United States deployed a Thaad battery in Guam in 2013 after it confirmed that the North has developed Musudan missiles capable of reaching Guam.

Kim Jong-dae: A high-angle attack of a Rodong missile means the North has failed to miniaturize its nuclear warhead. The Rodong missile can carry a warhead of up to 2 tons, but about 70 percent is its body. A Thaad missile is about 6 kilograms, and even if it hits the Rodong missile, the warhead won’t be destroyed. It’s like hitting a rock with a needle.

After Chinese President Xi Jinping made public his opposition to a Thaad deployment in Korea last July, China intensified its protest.

Park: China thinks the United States is trying to deploy Thaad in Korea to intercept its own inter-continental ballistic missile. Because it sees the deployment as a part of a strategic competition between the two countries, it opposes the Thaad deployment for the USFK. It seems that Xi made the opposition based on inaccurate information, and other officials are just following him. When China fires an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB), it will fly at an altitude of 2,500 kilometers. It is impossible to intercept it from Korea. Furthermore, the shortest distance to the United States is over Russia and Alaska, and a Thaad placement for the USFK has nothing to do with China’s ICBMs.

Kim Jong-dae: When the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, came to the Yellow Sea in 2010, China fiercely protested. The United States said it can have an exercise in the international waters, but China said there is no such area in the Yellow Sea. The situation is similar to that.

Can the radar that comes with the Thaad battery spy on China?

Park: That is nonsense. The radar normally covers 1,000 kilometers. Radar sends its wave in a direct line. Because the earth is a sphere, it takes a while for the radar to detect a missile fired from China. The radar system for Thaad intends to provide a precise detection after a launch is confirmed by a satellite. It’s not something you can change the direction of as easily as other radar systems. It requires entirely new programing to look into China when it is set up to look into North Korea. Even after changing the direction, it takes time to clear around the area. China will understand it better if it sees the radar system in use.

Kim Jong-dae: It is not just a simple matter of the radar system. Many troops and other equipment move with a Thaad battery. Furthermore, the U.S. will concentrate more intelligence to operate the system in Korea.

Does it mean that the Thaad deployment is a diplomatic issue?

Kim Sung-han: We must see it comprehensively. Even in Korea, a controversy has begun on whether the Thaad system is deployed as part of the USFK or if Korea will make a purchase. Although that is a matter for the Ministry of National Defense, but it has already become a diplomatic issue.

Park: If President Xi had been briefed correctly on the role of Thaad, China’s ongoing pressures on Korea is meant to test the Korea-U.S. alliance.

Kim Jong-dae: Thaad is a strategic asset and deployment of a strategic asset takes into account geopolitics. That’s why not the Pentagon but the White House must make a decision. China seemed to think it is a matter beyond military strategy.

Does that mean that China’s opposition has grounds?

Kim Sung-han: Even if it does, China has gone too far. Because Chinese Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Jianchao spoke to Seoul in a strong tone during his recent visit, the Defense Ministry responded that it is a matter of sovereignty and warned China to stop trying to influence Korea’s defense policy. Beijing’s move will strengthen the Korea-U.S. alliance and eventually help the United States to deploy Thaad.

Kim Jong-dae: The controversy became too sensitive. Will it be possible for Seoul to make a decision? It won’t even be easy for the next administration. China probably is going after that.

How should Korea respond to the situation?

Kim Jong-dae: The controversy has stirred up populism over a national security matter. I think the Thaad controversy in Korea will cool down soon. What’s important is having an accurate understanding of the Thaad system. We need to have detailed data on test evaluations. We have to check and verify and then have a debate.

Park: The controversy became overheated because the idea of U.S. deployment of the Thaad to protect the USFK and the idea of Korea’s purchase of Thaad were confused. If it is a U.S. deployment, it is a simple issue. But now that they are mixed, the debate became complicated.

Kim Sung-han: Not that many Korean military officials are 120 percent certain we need Thaad, taking into account the topography of the Korean Peninsula. Before we became technologically sure that we need the system, the China factor was added and it became a diplomatic issue.

Politicians are having a debate.

Kim: That is abnormal. We are not building this weapons system and stirring a debate over its introduction will only eliminate pragmatic choices. Politicizing the issue will only make it worse.

Park: Making a national security decision politically is a problem. The Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff lacked a philosophy and they are at fault.

How should we respond?

Kim Jong-dae: We have to be careful of the politics of superpowers when we approach a national security issue. We must maintain the alliance with the United States along with friendships with neighbors. When there is a conflict between the United States and China, we automatically become a passive player. We must not approach the issue hastily and emotionally. The assistant-ministerial talks between Seoul and Beijing took place on Monday, but the Defense Ministry responded to the Thaad issue. I think the Foreign Ministry should have spoken about it. The Defense Ministry just needs to give a practical guideline to the Foreign Ministry.

Kim Sung-han: The center of the national security is the Korea-U.S. alliance. Acting as if we are a neutral country does not fit the reality.

Park: We need to look at the example of Japan. Although China speaks about Japan’s missile defense regime from time to time, Tokyo doesn’t care, because there is no need to consult the neighbors about national defense. We should have the same resolute attitude. Persuading China after the placement is also a good option.

What will be our choice?

Kim Sung-han: We have three choices. First is deployment of the PAC-3 and second the deployment of the Thaad in the USFK. The third would be Korea’s purchase of the Thaad system. For now, we need to have missile defense with the PAC-3 and then review the second and third options after the North stages another provocation such as a nuclear test.

Park: Of Kim’s proposals, the second will be good for now. We can decide whether the Thaad is effective or not by observing the USFK’s operation. 

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