Getting out of the game
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.
Missile defense is a system to detect, track, intercept and destroy attacking missiles. The key to air defense systems is how fast and accurately they can strike incoming targets. Millions of tentacles are necessary on land and outer space to keep a round-the-clock watch over enemy sites. The soul of a missile defense system hinges on the positioning of its radar, which act as its eyes. The Terminal High-altitude Area Missile system can intercept ballistic missiles outside and inside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The issue of permanent deployment of a layered defense system has caused heated debate in Korea. It was the inevitable outcome of North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, severed ties between the two Koreas, and a need for a stronger alliance between Seoul and Washington. A certain U.S. defense system has rocked the entire nation. The argument over the issue underscores how vulnerable and sensitive the society is to security affairs.
Missile defense is ever-evolving. Under the strict goal of intercepting any incoming missile, the system has been under nonstop development. The Thaad battery that could arrive in Korea is far from perfect. What we should question is not whether we need the system or not, but whether we have given seriously thought on the geopolitical ramifications of being home to a Thaad system.
Washington could be testing Seoul’s commitment to the alliance. Now that it has endorsed collective self-defense rights to Japan and signed a military intelligence sharing pact with Japan and South Korea, it had to upgrade the tripartite military alliance by establishing a missile defense network. On the surface, Washington is arguing for the need to deploy Thaad in Korea to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. But the ultimate goal is to make Korea a part of the U.S. missile umbrella as part of its campaign to stretch its missile defense system worldwide. The U.S. could build a three-way cooperation network through separate bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan. On the pretext of protecting South Korea from North Korea’s threat, it would complete a three-way front against China. Thaad therefore would allow the U.S. to strike many birds with one stone.
By installing the Thaad system in Korea, the U.S. would have access to China’s missile capabilities. China would not tolerate a U.S. missile system in its backyard. China will see Korea as part of the Japan-U.S desire to contain China’s rising power.
To argue that Thaad is purely aimed at deterring North Korea is as unbelievable as the U.S. claiming its “pivot” to Asia policy is not directed at China.
The deployment of Thaad has not caused direct conflict between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. is merely setting the stage by pitching the need to Korea. China too has been pressuring Korea to reject the plan. Both are cornering Korea for their strategic purposes.
We are partly to blame. During the last seven years, conservative governments have painted North Korea as a vital threat. Anyone who calls for revival of the six-party talks, better inter-Korean relations and return of wartime operation command are labelled pro-North Korea. We have come to believe that the best interest of the Korea-U.S. alliance is in the best interest of Korea and made ourselves pawns on the chessboard of the two superpowers.
We cannot let ourselves be a pawn in the dangerous game between two global powers. We cannot expect innovative and comprehensive policy from the Defense Ministry.
President Park Geun-hye must declare opposition to Thaad deployment. She must initiate six-party talks for denuclearization and improve inter-Korean relationship. As long as the two stay hostile, Korea’s fate will be tied to the new Great Game.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is professor of political science and international studies at Yonsei University.
by Choi Jong-kun