Thaad is elephant in room at U.S. summit

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Thaad is elephant in room at U.S. summit


Korean police stand guard as key components of the U.S.-led Thaad battery are transferred by military vehicles to a golf course in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, early on April 26. Some 8,000 police were dispatched to the scene, while Seongju residents and activists protested the stealthy delivery. [YONHAP]

This is the first of a three-part series discussing key issues between South Korea and the United States ahead of the first bilateral summit between presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump in Washington on June 29 and 30. Analysts believe the deployment of the Thaad antimissile system, coordination on North Korea policy and possible renegotiation of the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) are the key items on the agenda for the meeting between the two leaders. Trump has touted an “America First” approach and is keen on renegotiating trade and security arrangements. Moon has been emphasizing the need for future engagement with North Korea along with pressure such as sanctions. The summit, being observed closely by regional players, is the first test of the Moon administration’s foreign policy ability. It also expected to set the direction of the South Korea-U.S. alliance under the two new leaders.

The first components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery arrived on a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane at the Osan Air Base in Gyeonggi on March 6. It was Day One in the delicate process of physically deploying the controversial American antimissile system to South Korea.

More than a month later, in the wee hours of April 26, the U.S. Forces Korea began installing key components of the Thaad battery - including a radar system and two missile launchers - on a golf course in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang.

Military trucks and trailers hauled the components into the rural town. They were greeted by protests by hundreds of suspicious local farmers and activists, tipped off to the overnight operation. Scuffles broke out between police and protesters. A dozen people were injured.

Nearly one year ago, on July 8, 2016, Seoul and Washington abruptly announced their joint decision to deploy the Thaad system to Korea after five months of official negotiations. Its stated purpose: to defend parts of South Korea against Pyongyang’s growing ballistic missile threats.

The governments in both Seoul and Washington have changed since. The countries’ new leaders - President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer who is South Korea’s first liberal leader in a decade, and U.S. President Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul who has touted an “America First” approach - are scheduled to hold their first summit on June 29 and 30 in Washington.

Such summits are usually occasions to confirm the two sides’ faith in the South Korea-U.S. alliance, coordinate North Korea policies and discuss overarching security and trade issues.

This summit, the Thaad deployment will be the elephant in the room - the most sensitive issue and a “litmus test” of the future direction of the alliance.

“The first divergence in opinion could be on how talks with North Korea could proceed, and the second could be over the Thaad issue,” said Kim Hyun-wook, an associate professor of American Studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (Ifans). Since the North Korea issue can’t be resolved overnight, Thaad is essentially the most “pivotal” and “worrying” pending issue for this summit.

Key regional players are also paying close attention to the summit. China has loudly protested the deployment of the Thaad system and retaliated economically against Seoul.

South Korea’s ultimate decision to deploy, delay or withdraw the Thaad system is seen by some analysts as having an impact on the overarching struggle between China and the United States for influence in the Asia-Pacific amid Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region.

“Beijing’s opposition to the Thaad deployment, I believe, has more of a strategic aspect than a military aspect,” said China expert Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow with the Seoul-based think tank Sejong Institute’s Security Strategy Studies Department. “And that is why China is retaliating so strongly on the Thaad issue, because it is linked to China-U.S. dynamics, and also its strategic future in this region.”

“In my view,” former Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo, a professor emeritus of Korea University, said, “the Thaad deployment is a litmus test - in the United States’ mind - of the firmness of the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance.”

Moon’s delay order

When the initial components of the Thaad battery were stealthily installed on the southern golf course, four more launchers for the system were brought into Korea and moved to a U.S. military base.

After taking office, Moon apparently was not informed of the four additional launchers. He ordered an investigation into whether top security officials from the previous administration intentionally withheld that information from the new government. And at the beginning of this month, he ordered a full-scale study into the environmental impact of the Thaad battery, which could take up to a year.

While the battery has initial operational capability, it is not fully functional yet.

The move has been called by some a stalling tactic or bargaining stance. Moon has called it a part of the “due process” of following domestic procedures.

The undeniably stealthy installation of the Thaad battery was met by protests domestically, including by Seongju residents, who have expressed worries about risks to their health and agricultural produce from the electromagnetic waves of the X-band radar of the battery. They also worried they could be targets of physical retaliation by the North.

The military’s installing of the Thaad components in Seongju came less than two weeks before the liberal Democratic Party’s Moon came into office, after a snap election on May 9 following the impeachment and removal from office of former President Park Geun-hye over a corruption and abuse of power scandal. The Thaad unit reached initial operational capability - able to intercept North Korean missiles - at the beginning of May.

Seoul also has felt a strong backlash from China and Russia, who have protested that the deployment of the Thaad system goes against their national security interests. They fear that the powerful X-band radar will be used to monitor military activities in parts of their countries.

Moon’s order of an environmental impact assessment has prompted concerns in Washington over a possible delay in the full deployment of the Thaad system, initially expected to be completed this year, or its removal altogether. As a presidential candidate, Moon had called for the Thaad deployment to be decided upon by the next administration.

Moon told the Washington Post in an interview published June 20, “Getting the environmental impact assessment does not mean that we will postpone or reverse the decision to deploy” the Thaad system to Korea.

In another interview with Reuters on Thursday, however, Moon said the original agreement was to deploy one launcher by the end of 2017 and the remaining five launchers the following year and that for unknown reasons “this entire Thaad process was accelerated.”

A Thaad battery, produced by U.S. arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, typically consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 48 interceptor missiles, a fire control and communications unit and the powerful X-band or AN/TPY-2 radar.

“Holding an environmental impact assessment could essentially be seen as a means to earn time,” said Sejong Institute’s Chung. “It can signify that depending on the result, Thaad can be withdrawn. And during this time, the variable is that the Korean Peninsula is a volatile region where anything can happen. The Moon government may, for example, determine that the Thaad deployment is not needed if inter-Korean relations improve.”

Security expert Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, argues for the necessity of installing the remaining four launchers to protect U.S. troops and South Koreans in case of a North Korean nuclear or ballistic missile attack.

“There were many issues leading to the deployment of Thaad in Seongju,” Bennett said. “Probably the leading issue was that in a wartime situation with North Korea, over time tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel would deploy to Korea largely through the Busan area,” which is the site of the U.S. Naval Forces Korea headquarters.

“The United States concluded that it would be irresponsible if it did not protect those personnel against the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons threat.”

The Thaad interceptors have a range of 200 kilometers (124 miles), meaning the south of the country is defended but not the Seoul area.

Bennett further pointed out, “Given the large number of North Korean ballistic missiles, limiting Thaad to two interceptor launchers (capable of firing a total of 16 interceptors) would likely force the United States to limit protection to the Busan area, leaving Gwangju and other urban areas in southern Korea vulnerable to nuclear attack. Deploying the other four launchers would allow Thaad to protect far more Koreans.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told new South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in their first phone call last week that he “respects” the “diplomatic process” underway in Seoul concerning the deployment of Thaad. But there is mounting pressure on Seoul to accept the deployment. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Trump Friday asking him to find a way with Moon to “expedite the procedural review that is currently hindering the full deployment.”

“In my view, Trump may call for the speedy deployment of Thaad, as soon as possible, during the summit,” Ifans Prof. Kim said, “while our side would put forward a view that the Thaad deployment would be possible after we follow domestic procedures including the environmental impact appraisal and seeking approval by the National Assembly. But how these two viewpoints will be mediated bears some watching.”

Bennett points out that one Thaad system alone is not enough to cover all of Korea, indicating the United States may press for more batteries to be deployed in the future.

“The interceptors that Thaad uses have only a 200 kilometer range,” said Bennett. “That means that one Thaad battery cannot defend all of Korea-at least two are required, and having three or four Thaad batteries would be even better to defend all of Korea.”

China’s pressure intensifies

Very recently, China has been pressing Seoul to be bolder - to make a “political decision” on the Thaad issue.

After South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam visited Beijing last week for high-level strategic talks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on June 20 urged the Korean government to “demonstrate political will and resolution.”

On Beijing’s retaliations against South Korea, Bennett pointed out, “China has complained that Thaad disrupts regional security, and yet China deploys a missile defense system very similar to Thaad, referred to as the Russian S-400 or Chinese HQ-19. These systems are designed to intercept adversaries’ missiles of roughly the Rodong and Musudan classes, just like Thaad, and they have interceptors of the same range as Thaad.

“While China often complains about Thaad’s over-the-horizon radar,” he continued, “China has reportedly deployed three similar radars in the area surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Why is it okay for China to have these systems, but seriously destabilizing if South Korea deploys but one Thaad battery?”

“Beijing is pressuring Seoul to come up with a political decision, because we are providing it pretext to do so,” said Chung Jae-hung of Sejong Institute.

Chung pointed out, “Thaad is a linchpin in the Korea-U.S. alliance, an important stage in the United States’ missile defense (MD) system. So in China’s position, Seoul withdrawing from Thaad will be a considerable strategic blow to the trilateral security cooperation between South Korea-U.S.-Japan and the MD system being pushed for by the United States.”

Should Korea decide to scrap the deployment of Thaad, he pointed out, “U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific region cannot help but decrease, and Beijing, from its viewpoint, would then be able to expand its influence in this region, enabling China to exercise its influence in this area much more assertively.”

The Moon administration also aims to revive inter-Korean talks, and China’s support would play an important role in that process. Chung pointed out that if Seoul withdraws the Thaad system, China could propose to help mediate an inter-Korean leaders’ summit, back trilateral cooperation projects with the North, and also give a nudge to Moon’s plans to revitalize the economy and create jobs, which could be bolstered by the return of Chinese tourists and business.

“China has been saying such things to South Korea: that there is a ‘gift basket’ if it does so,” continued Chung. “But China’s prerequisite is that for Chinese and South Korean relations to improve, Thaad has to be withdrawn.” Moon is expected to hold a summit as early as next month with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20, or G-20, summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Moon told Reuters Thursday, “If I have the chance to meet President Xi, I will ask for him to lift these measures,” referring to China’s unofficial economic retaliations. “This is the agenda that we cannot evade.”

Former Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said, “China does not have a strong case opposing Thaad - which is a defensive system - and arguing that it is a threat to China, as the radar can monitor only high-altitude activity and the range is limited. It seems to be looking for a face-saving way to relieve the pressure.”

He continued, “Much will depend upon how gingerly South Korea and the United States give China assurances and some justification for relaxing its opposition.”

Litmus test of the alliance

Analysts warn that indecisiveness on the Thaad issue could be damaging to South Korea-U.S. relations, possibly threatening the soundness of the alliance; thus the upcoming summit is an important occasion for Moon and Trump to build mutual trust and understanding.

And Seoul, caught between its closest ally (the United States) and its leading trading partner (China) has been trying to maintain a delicate diplomatic balance. But it may have to take a clear stance on Thaad.

“The Korea-U.S. alliance won’t fall apart because of the Thaad issue, and there won’t be a situation such as the U.S. Forces Korea withdrawing from the peninsula,” said Ifans’ Kim Hyun-wook. “But the alliance could be considerably impacted because of it.”

Kim continued, “Then, we could return to the state during the so-called crisis of the Korea-U.S. alliance back in the Roh Moo-hyun era, where there was even talk of an amicable divorce of the alliance at that time.” The late President Roh Moo-hyun’s term spanned between 2003 and 2008. “The Korea-U.S. alliance could lose its cohesive edge and become considerably weakened.”

“It is fortunate that both Moon and National Security Council Adviser Chung Eui-yong stated clearly that the Thaad deployment will be done,” said Han. “As for possible delay, there is room for understanding - considering the haste with which the decision and deployment were carried out - by the United States that the new Korean administration would like to abide by the law and proper procedures as long as there is not an undue delay, such as more than a year.”

Chung, head of the Blue House National Security Office, made a trip in early June to Washington to meet with his U.S. counterparts to discuss the upcoming summit and quell concerns over the Thaad issue.

However, some analysts emphasize that a clearer consensus about the deployment of the Thaad system needs to be reached during the summit in order to assuage Washington’s concerns and put a halt to China’s mounting pressure.

“Using the Thaad card as a means of making a deal with the U.S. and China, in my opinion, is very dangerous,” Sejong Institute’s Chung Jae-hung said, “as it could signify that the U.S.-Korea alliance is not prioritized.” This could lead to Beijing gaining confidence and becoming more assertive in its strategic interests in the region such as over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Others warn that in a worst-case scenario - that Seoul’s relations with Washington sour considerably over the Thaad issue - the United States may determine that Korea is no longer strategically important in its Asia policymaking and that only a shell of the alliance would be kept.

“In reality, if the United States determines that South Korea is not a strategically important ally in its Asia strategy, then it could decrease the number of U.S. troops here, or avoid discussions with Korea on important issues,” said Kim. “So while the framework of an alliance may be maintained, the actual content and substance of the alliance would be considerably weakened.”

An example of this would be Washington “strengthening discussions with Japan, rather than South Korea, on important issues such as the North Korea nuclear issue,” he pointed out, or a so-called “Korea passing,” a situation diplomatic isolation of Seoul by the Trump government.

Chung advised: “The Thaad issue should be resolved quickly and not be dragged out any longer: a political decision has to be reached. The Korea-U.S. summit should come up with a joint statement, or legally binding agreement, which shows China and others that the Thaad deployment issue is over with.

“This is not just a domestic issue but about U.S. relations and mutual trust. We can appropriately respond to the problems incurred afterward, such as with China, based on the changed situation.”

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