An inevitable choice
Do we really need the U.S. missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) as a deterrence against the North Korean nuclear threat? The controversy over deployment of the U.S. missile shield among South Korea, the United States and China has stirred a heated debate on foreign and security affairs. We will present arguments from both sides of the military and diplomatic perspectives. First, we look at the military aspect of the Thaad system and whether it will provide effective and reliable protection against a North Korean nuclear attack.
The issue of deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) in South Korea has become a hot issue among Seoul, Washington and Beijing. A video titled “Doomsday” has gone viral on the Internet. The video, allegedly produced by the U.S. Department of Defense, vividly simulates the catastrophic aftermath of a North Korean scud missile carrying a 15-kiloton nuclear bomb landing in Yongsan District in central Seoul.
The area, which is home to the Korean defense ministry and the Yongsan Garrison, where the Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea headquarters are based, was completely wiped out after the bombing. Landmarks in downtown Seoul like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Station and Gwanghwamun Street are ripped apart like paper. The repercussions also wreaked havoc on neighborhoods across the Han River, killing as many as 1.25 million people. The video is a simulation - it is fiction - but nevertheless raised awareness of what kind of danger we are exposed to.
During the peak of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity with the United States, both sides owning as many as 60,000 nuclear bombs. They could have destroyed each other many times over and were at times on the brink of doing so. But they never did. What kept them from that was what is defined as mutually assured destruction, the idea that using weapons of mass destruction by one side would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacked and the attacker. In other words, whoever shoots first will die next. Therefore, the Thaad dispute should not be an issue from the start since South Korea is totally vulnerable to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Instead of addressing the fundamental issue of ensuring South Korea’s mutual vulnerability, we are too engrossed with missile defenses.
Deploying the Thaad system - whether it is within a Korean or American military base - looks like an inevitability for Korea. Korea plans to establish a so-called Kill Chain, a comprehensive set of indigenous satellites integrated with the Korean Anti-Missile Defense (KAMD) system with the goal of being able to detect North Korean missile launches early enough to allow Seoul’s cruise and ballistic missiles to destroy them preemptively. Of course, detecting North Korea’s nuclear threats in advance and preemptively striking them before they hit us is technically and theoretically questionable. But authorities cannot sit on their hands doing nothing while people live under a growing threat of North Korean nuclear capabilities that have become more and more advanced. The KAMD and Thaad battery are all part of the least, if not the best, options.
In a more farsighted view, we cannot be entirely free from the North Korean threat by just beefing up our defenses. We must bolster our offensive capabilities to balance them with North Korea’s to ensure mutual vulnerability. Some would question how that is possible when North Korea has nuclear weapons and we do not. But we could upgrade our conventional arms capabilities and mix them with comprehensive strategic retaliatory means while respecting nuclear nonproliferation principles.
Deployment of the Thaad system in Korea is an important security matter, but it should be addressed in the bigger context of establishing reliable and effective deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats. We must not be over-engrossed with defense capabilities. There have been suspicious nuclear activities in North Korea recently. Nuclear threats are a life-and-death problem for the Korean Peninsula. With these factors in perspective, the utmost priority should be given to upgrading South Korea’s unilateral vulnerability to a mutual one.
Economic prosperity can only be possible with strong security. As long as Pyongyang threatens South Korea with nuclear weapons, we are naive to believe that it will agree to any changes according to South Korea’s wishes and unification based on a free democracy.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is an visiting professor at Konyang University.
by Kim Tae-woo