National security is top priority

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National security is top priority

Do we really need the U.S. missile defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad), as a deterrent against North Korea’s nuclear threat? We studied the military issues surrounding the U.S. anti-missile system last week. In this second part, we will examine diplomatic issues based on the geopolitical dynamics of the Korea-China-U.S. relationship.

The controversy over an alleged U.S. plan to deploy the Thaad system in Korea, which stirred a heated debate among Seoul, Washington and Beijing and within Korea until early this month, has been somewhat cooled down by denial from a top U.S. defense official. During a visit to Seoul on April 10, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “We are not at a point yet to determine [Thaad] might be suitably deployed in the future,” after talks with his Korean counterpart, Han Min-koo.

Despite Washington’s formal stance that there has been no formal discussions with Seoul on the issue, there have been contradictory statements from officials from the U.S. government and military stressing the need for Thaad’s establishment in Korea. Even the system’s designer, Lockheed Martin, has joined the chorus by claiming it has provided information on the missile system to the Korean government.

The mounting pressure by the United States derives from Seoul’s so-called strategic ambiguity on the sensitive issue. Seoul intentionally sidestepped the issue to avoid being caught up in the tense rivalry between U.S. President Barack Obama, seeking a policy “pivot” to Asia to contain the rising power of China, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who more or less sees China as an equal to the U.S. in his perception of a “new type of great power relations.” Seoul needs to build its own solid strategy to escape any conflict between the two global powers. The keystone to the strategy of “dignified diplomacy” is clear. Seoul must put national security interests first and carry out a pragmatic foreign policy accordingly.

From this view, the argument for a Thaad unit in Korea has grounds. South Korea needs all possible protection from the escalating nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear threat is no longer theoretical. It has built capabilities to fire nuclear missiles within the next two to three years. In a written testimony to the House Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, said North Korea has taken steps toward deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. The KN-08 road-mobile ICBM, whose mobility makes it difficult to locate and target, has been on public display before and is said to be capable of traveling 12,000 kilometers (7,456 miles). North Korea also conducted the first flight test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Meanwhile, it would take more than 10 years for South Korea to establish a so-called Kill Chain, a comprehensive set of indigenous satellites integrated with the Korean Anti-Missile Defense system. Given the broad nature of the Korea-U.S. alliance, Korea’s defense policy should be in tune with the U.S. global military posture. By hosting a Thaad battery, Korea could send a message that Korea is committed to its alliance with the U.S. even with closer ties with China.

We should not get emotional about Washington’s siding with Tokyo over territorial and history issues. Foreign policy should be strictly based on no-nonsense quid pro quo. The government must try to save defense spending to set aside finance for snowballing welfare costs. Even German philosopher Immanuel Kant with his “Perpetual Peace” theory said peace must be bought. Thaad is a necessity. But it is not enough. To effectively deter North Korea’s nuclear threat, we must consider re-allowing in American tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in late 1991.

Establishment of a Thaad system could be meaningful for Korea’s security sovereignty. China has openly protested a Thaad deployment in Korea to the extent of interfering with our national affairs. Russia is siding with China. But if North Korea’s nuclear development destroys peace on the Korean Peninsula, both China and Russia would not be able to escape the ensuing chaos. Once Thaad is established in Korea, Beijing and Moscow could pay more attention to ensuring stability in the Korean Peninsula. Seoul must persuade Beijing and Russia to support deterrence against North Korea.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a visiting professor of Seoul National University Graduate School of International Studies and former first deputy chief of the National Intelligence Service.

by Jun Ok-hyun

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