Thaad: unwelcome but critical

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Thaad: unwelcome but critical

After massive street demonstrations that led to the impeachment of the South Korean president, civic organizers are fully turning their attention to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in South Korea.

The antimissile defense system is limited to intercepting incoming short- and medium-range guided missiles. Just one installation is expected to cost a staggering $800 million plus land/personnel expenses. The U.S. is shouldering the cost, but South Korea’s Thaad opponents worry each site turns a remote location into a new target for the North.

Today, China is conducting economic warfare against South Korean businesses in retaliation for installing Thaad within South Korea. Thaad’s long-range radar could be integrated into the American defense system and re-directed at China during times of crisis, adding invaluable additional warning time should China launch ICBMs.

There is no panacea for national protection. One Thaad installation can only take out just some of the incoming missiles. More sites would be necessary for South Korea to be adequately protected. Unlike North Korea’s extensive air defense system that covers the entire country at low, medium and high altitudes, Thaad is just one component that plugs a gap in South Korea’s defenses. Even so, there is not an effective defense against massive rocket and artillery fire being fired just north of the DMZ. So, is it worth it? The surprising answer is a resounding yes.

To understand why, one must consider the overall context.

The North Koreans are convinced that the raison d’être for the country and its harsh rule is to unify the Korean peninsula one way or another under its system. This has remained unchanged since the communist government’s founding. Outside parties have repeatedly overlooked or downplayed this fundamental reality. Under the protection of the U.S. forces, a second Korean war has been avoided for almost 70 years.

Consequently, the notion of a North Korean military invasion has been implausible. All sides have considered an invasion to be suicidal given the certain response by combined South Korean-U.S. forces, including possible ICBM retaliation.

Since political and economic domination of the South is equally ridiculous, North Korea’s remaining solution has evolved to trying to neutralize MAD (mutally assured destruction) by making a U.S. military response too risky to American cities in the face of North Korean nuclear weapon-equipped ICBMs.

While there may be little chance of a Pyongyang government collapse, recent fratricide makes one wonder. There could be a sense of a closing political window for Kim Jong-un to prove to his nation’s elite that he is their best bet by making MAD meaningless and later invading the South.

Meanwhile, there is China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang recently told a news briefing, “We have said many times already that the crux of the North Korean nuclear issue is the problem between the United States and North Korea.”

On March 8, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi proposed to lower tensions and get the parties back to the table. Calling it a “double suspension,” he recommended that North Korea halt its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea to cancel the annual major military exercises.

Minister Wang Yi added, “We hope the relevant parties can shoulder their responsibilities, play the role they should, and together with China play a constructive role for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and for its denuclearization,”he added.

This position is clever by half. The Chinese position is to benefit from a denuclearized, stabilized North Korea, while continuing to commercially profit under the current paradigm, all the while pretending they have no real leverage over North Korea or even a significant role in the growing crisis.

Some U.S. experts theorize China is likely to view their stance as a negotiating position to gain acceptance of its sphere of influence in Tibet, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea. In exchange, Beijing may be willing to lean harder on North Korea. We have to watch what may come out of Presidents Trump’s and Xi Jinping’s first meeting, expected next month.

So, one may say that while Thaad may officially be a defensive system aimed at North Korean missiles, it is in fact being used as a lever against China. Thaad’s most important role may be to force the Chinese to abandon their hands-off policy of pretending the Korea problem to be just between the U.S. and North Korea, while half-heartedly fulfilling their obligations to economically isolate the North.

In short, the Six Parties nations have been kicking the can down the road, while North Korea has used the time to develop its weapons. While the official North Korean position is their nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes only, their strategy is more than that. Their ICBMs are meant to provide a cover for one more desperate military adventure to capture the South. The notion of peaceful coexistence is a ruse to buy time for preparation. Consequently, the Obama, Trump and recent Seoul administrations have realized that formal negotiations are ultimately detrimental to their interests.

If the North Koreans are attempting to dramatically change the game with future ICBMs, the Americans and South Koreans appear to be attempting to offset that maneuver by forcing the Chinese to take on more realistic and responsible obligations. The question may ultimately come down to whether Beijing is capable, given the size of the nation and the depth of its corruption.

Regardless, if these days seem like desperate times, they will seem bucolic in hindsight should this Thaad-based disruptive move fail.

*The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”

Tom Coyner
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