Caught between superpowersU.S. President Barack Obama visited Vietnam last month – the first visit by an American president in 16 years – and announced the lifting of a U.S. embargo on lethal arms sales to the Southeast Asian nation. It was a specific and definite measure to include Vietnam, which is facing off against China in the South China Sea, in the U.S.-led security network, as mentioned by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at the Shangri-La Dialogue. China is on alert. And North Korea’s strategic value for China goes up.
At this delicate moment, North Korea’s Vice Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs Ri Su-yong visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi’s remarks to Ri were ambiguous. “We hope that the concerned countries can remain levelheaded and strengthen dialogue to maintain peace and stability in the region,” Xi told Ri.
South Korea and the United States are among the concerned countries. Xi reportedly made no mention at all about the North’s nuclear and missile issues. Although China said it will fully implement UN Security Council sanctions on the North, it can take a step back at any time.
The U.S. Treasury Department also issued a secondary boycott measure against the North by labeling it a “primary money laundering concern.” Under the additional sanctions, non-American banks and other entities are banned from conducting dollar transactions on behalf of North Korea. The move appeared to be targeting China, the North’s largest trade partner.
The U.S. Treasury Department also demanded Huawei, China’s largest telecommunication equipment manufacturer, to submit details of its business details with sanctioned countries including the North. That was to stop Huawei’s products using American technologies from being exported to the North.
These measures and Obama’s visit to Vietnam make clear that the United States is strengthening its pressure on China. The more the pressure grows, the higher the North’s value becomes, and it will ultimately find room to breathe amid the international sanctions.
In the latest Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 5, China and the United States had a clash. U.S. Defense Secretary Carter said a “principled security network” will be formed by grouping Asian countries by twos or threes. On the plane to Singapore, he told reporters that he had used the term, “principled security network” 38 times, indicating his strong will to contain China. He did not hesitate to issue the stern message that the United States will exercise its military influence over the South China Sea as long as international laws allow.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, a remark on the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in South Korea was made by South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo. He said South Korea has an undeterred will for the deployment. “The missile defense capabilities owned by South Korean and U.S. troops are terminal phase, lower tier missiles,” he said. “I believe the deployment of the Thaad system, which will cover larger areas, will be more militarily effective.”
China’s Joint Staff Department Deputy Chief Admiral Sun Jianguo argued that the South China Sea was discovered by China and the Chinese government drew the “nine-dash line” in 1940, making it Chinese territorial waters. Sun made clear his opposition to the Thaad deployment.
“Because I am a solider, I know well about the Thaad system,” he said. “The U.S. deployment of the Thaad to the Korean Peninsula is an unnecessary measure that far exceeds the defense capabilities they already have.”
The confrontation between the United States and China over the South China Sea and Thaad issue is a serious issue for the South. First, China may loosen its sanctions on the North. Second, China may start trade retaliation against the South. Third – and the worst possible reaction – China may recognize North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.
Why do we need the Thaad system in the South? The government explained that South Korean and U.S. troops have Patriot-2 and Patriot-3 missiles, and their flying altitude is about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). North Korea’s Scud missiles fly at a maximum altitude of 250 kilometers and interception is only possible at the terminal phase. The government says it wants to build an additional medium-tier defense shield of 40 to 150 kilometers of altitude to have one more opportunity to intercept any incoming enemy missiles.
The reasoning is right. But let’s imagine a situation in which the North attacks the South with its Scud and Rodong missiles. According to the British magazine the Economist, Seoul will face 420,000 casualties if the North fires just two 20-kiloton nuclear warheads. That is not even counting the casualties from the 1,000 long-range artillery guns deployed along the inter-Korean border.
We must have more comprehensive thinking to choose between giving up Thaad so that China continues to pressure the North with sanctions and deploying Thaad and encouraging China to loosen its pressure on Pyongyang. That would give the North a free hand to attack the South with nuclear weapons and missiles.
Preventing a war is the top priority. As South Korea has fallen into the power game between the two superpowers over both the South China Sea and Thaad, President Park Geun-hye’s argument that the North will soon collapse is not being bought in Beijing. The deployment of Thaad will only accelerate the collapse of her theory.
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.