THAAD and the Korean Peninsula

This year, THAAD deployment in South Korea has been a hotly debated topic throughout the Korean peninsula and, in greater scope, throughout the entire world.  Debates over THAAD deployment have shaken the political landscape of South Korea.  North Korea, China, Russia, and the United States have also expressed strong opinions on the deployment.  This post will examine the debate of THAAD deployment in South Korea, looking into what THAAD is capable of while also looking deeply into how THAAD deployment has been debated by the international community.  It will conclude with some final remarks of my own on THAAD deployment.

What Is THAAD?  Is North Korea a threat?

THAAD, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, is a modern missile defense system.  It is a land-based system which uses hit-to-kill technology – kinetic energy destroys the warhead in the air – to mitigate the effect of enemy weapons before they hit the ground (MDA Factsheet).  THAAD consists of four major components; a highly mobile truck-based launcher with 8 interceptors per launcher; the largest x-band radar in the world; and communications to link the system to the entire BDMS.  THAAD has an effective range of 200km, with a maximum effective altitude of 150km, which makes it more promising than any other South Korean missile currently deployed or under development (South Korea Needs THAAD: Klinger).  In theory, the deployment of THAAD in South Korea would work to enhance South Korea’s defense against North Korean provocations and, in the case of an all out resumption of the Korean War, it would defend South Korea against the variety of missiles North Korea launches.

In order to appropriately assess the effectiveness of THAAD in South Korea, one must examine the threat of North Korea.  Throughout the 21st century, the North Korean threat has constantly evolved as North Korea has worked to procure more advanced military hardware.  The nuclear and missile programs have long produced debate and fear in the region and beyond.  But how has the North Korean threat evolved to the point where THAAD is seen as necessary?

In 2006, North Korea became the first and only nation to conduct a nuclear test in the 21st century.  Pyongyang then followed with two more tests, one in 2009 and 2013.  Following its 2013 test, North Korea, in a letter sent to the United Nations, claimed it had the capability to precisely strike “bases of aggression… no matter where they are in the world” (UN Doc.S/2013/91: Dated 13 February 2013).  In January 2016, North Korea tested its fourth nuclear weapon.  So far, 2016 has seen a large push for advancement in the nuclear realm.  Two hours after testing, Kim Jung-un claimed North Korea had tested a “hydrogen bomb of justice” (Yonhap).  Kim has also pushed for miniaturizing nuclear warheads throughout the year; in March of this year, Kim posed for a photo-op with a mini-warhead (The Sun). North Korea further cemented its nuclear push during the 7th Worker’s Party Congress in May when Kim heralded the program as a path to dignity and security (NY Times).  The evolution of North Korea’s nuclear program forces those in the region to pursue effective measures to ensure their security.*

Another cause for concern is North Korea’s missile program.  Pyongyang started to acquire missile technology in the 1960s when it received several surface-to-ship missiles from the Soviet Union (Nuclear Threat Initiative).  North Korea continued to expand its program by reverse engineering Soviet scud missiles.  During the 1980s,  North Korea tested the Hwansong-5 scud type missile, securing Iranian financial support.  The Hwansong entered serial production in the mid-1980s.  Around the same time, North Korea started development of a missile which would become a prominent fixture of North Korea’s program (Nuclear Threat Initiative).

Between 1987-1988 and 1990, Nodong technology was transferred to North Korea from the Soviet Union.  The Nodong missile has a range of 1300-1600km and is capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead.  It has a road range of 550km (Global Security).  Nodong missiles were first detected on the launch pad at Musudan-ri Missile Testing Site in May of 1990, though subsequent imagery revealed a failed test had likely occurred (Nuclear Threat Initiative).  However, the Nodong continued to be tested, culminating in its first successful test in 1993 (Cha: 2013, p.224+).  The Nodong missile has been continually upgraded and tested since, with its most recent test occurring in September of this year (Yonhap).  Though the Nodong missile has been tested and refined over the years, North Korea has also devoted time to a variety of missile systems, such as the Musudan; the Musudan has been tested 8 times in 2016, though most of those tests have resulted in failure (International Business Times).

One of the main goals of the North Korean missile program is to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which is operational.  Currently, Kim has the KN-08 and KN-14 models at his disposal, revealed in 2012 and 2015 respectively (38North; Washington Free Beacon).  The KN-08 is a three-stage rocket, with the possibility to hit the American mainland with a nuclear warhead, according to Admiral Bill Gortney, the head of NORAD (Global SecurityBusiness Insider).  As of writing, the KN series of missiles has yet to have a flight test.  However, North Korea has conducted a series of ground tests of rocket engines which may be used in the KN-08 missile.  Many also thought that the launching of the Unha missile in February of 2016 also gave North Korea information related to the creation of an operational ICBM (New York Times).  Some even feared that  April tests of Musudan medium-range ballistic missiles, despite being stated as a failure, contributed information to the creation of a North Korean ICBM (38North).

2016 has also seen the rapid development of North Korean Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.  In December of 2015, North Korea tested its SLBM technology, but the test was a failure.  The missile was also fired from a submerged barge, rather than an actual submarine (38North).  In April, North Korea conducted its first SLBM test 2016 which was also a failure (38North).  Another failure followed in July as a protest to the announcement of THAAD deployment in South Korea (Yonhap; CNN).  Many experts argued the program to be nascent and wrote off a successful test of the KN-11 for at least a couple of years; John Schilling is quoted saying it “will likely require several years to deliver an operational system” (38North).  Despite such thinking, North Korea was able to successfully test an SLBM on August 25, 2016; the missile flew 500km before landing in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), according to reports (BBCReuters).  Despite its rapid progress, North Korea’s SLBM program still has a long road ahead.  With only one successful test, and only one submarine capable of carrying the system, it will take time before North Korea is able to strike fear all over the world with its SLBMs.  However, with its rapid advancement, this program may only need a couple of years to fully develop, a scary thought for the world.

Though nascent, North Korea’s devotion to developing a diverse set of operable nuclear weapons and missiles is a grave security threat to the entire world.  The deployment of THAAD in South Korea does work to add a layer a defense against these programs, though it alone may not offer a perfect defense system.  Therefore, South Korea and the United States must look beyond the deployment of THAAD to ensure that a robust, capable defense system is in place to defend against the threat of North Korea.

The Politics of Deployment

THAAD deployment opened a highly contested political rift in South Korea.  The ruling Saenuri Party, on August 30, officially adopted a favorable opinion to THAAD deployment as a part of its party platform (Yonhap) and has made several calls for bipartisan support for the missile defense system.  Minjoo Party – South Korea’s main opposition party – leadership, however, has put forth differing opinions.  In July, Party Spokesman Lee Jae-joong came out strongly against THAAD deployment, saying “we are very disappointed by the presidential office that makes such a dogmatic and hasty decision.”  At the same time, interim Minjoo Party Chief Kim Jong-in supported THAAD deployment (Donga Ilbo).  In late August, the Minjoo Party elected long time THAAD opponent Choe Min-ae as Chief.  Since taking the position, Choe has vowed to give the party a clear position on the issue and make opposition to THAAD a part of the Minjoo Party platform (Chosun Ilbo).  South Korean domestic politics have been polarized on the issue of THAAD as it prepares for a presidential election in December next year.

South Korea’s political institutions were not the only places where strong opinions on the THAAD issue were expressed.  South Korean citizens also expressed outrage.  Protestors in Seongju country, where the battery is to be deployed, even shaved their heads to highlight the possible environmental effects of the battery (BBC).  Protestors also raised fears that the presence of THAAD would make the region a target for strikes if hostilities broke out on the peninsula (Voice of America).  This trend, however, is reversing as North Korea continues down a provocative path; on September 19, ten days after North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, The Korea Times reported that South Korea’s second largest opposition party – the People’s Party – is showing signs of withdrawing its opposition to THAAD.  And in an MBC public poll, 65.1 percent of respondents supported the deployment of THAAD (Korea Times), up from around 50 percent in July (Sputnik).

Two days after the announcement of THAAD deployment, North Korea launched an SLBM into the East Sea.  The test was a failure, though it was quickly deemed a protest to the deployment of THAAD (CNN).  Obviously, North Korea would oppose the deployment of THAAD.  To North Korean leaders, in particular Kim Jung-un, THAAD represents a shift toward American supremacy on the peninsula, thus shifting the status-quo away from a favorable situation for the isolated regime.  THAAD also represents a growing presence of advanced American military weaponry in Korea, thus threatening the legitimacy of the North Korean defense systems.  However, North Korea’s recent provocations may have a more subtle intent.  Pyongyang may be gaming the system with provocative behavior to hasten the deployment of THAAD in Korea as a way to weaken Sino-ROK relations (KINU Online Series, July 15, 2016).   North Korea would then take advantage of a weakening Sino-ROK relationship in order to repair its own relationship with China.  Though it is difficult to really piece together North Korea’s true intentions, one thing is clearly obvious: Pyongyang’s action have only worked to isolate the regime even further from the international community and global financial system.  (For a more updated version of this argument, see this CNBC article.)

Throughout the entire THAAD debate, China has expressed its opposition to the defense system.  In a question and answer session, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kwang said, “deployment of THAAD will in no way help achieve peace and stability of the Peninsula,” vowing that China would take “corresponding measures to safeguard its interests” (Chinese Foreign Ministry).  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement against the decision, urging the United States and South Korea to opt against “unwise actions that can do tragic and irremediable damage to the situation in Southeast Asia and beyond” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs).  While China and Russia have been very adamant in their opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, their objections have had little effect; President Park has made recent trips to Russia and China about convincing the two nations that THAAD is essential in deterring North Korean provocations.  In a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Park highlighted that THAAD would only be used to deter North Korea (Korea Herald).  Chinese and Russian opposition, though strong, will have little effect in reversing THAAD deployment in Korea.  If anything, THAAD may drive a wedge in Sino-US-ROK relations, resulting in stronger ties between North Korea and China.

Conclusions

THAAD will provide another level of defense for South Korea in the event of North Korean aggression.  However, with its current effective range of 200km, it will do little in terms of defending Seoul – the battery is being deployed 217km away.  Deployment has also polarized the international community.  So, is THAAD worth the fallout it is creating?

In order for South Korea to successfully address defense concerns, THAAD is a step in the right direction.  However, THAAD is not an end-all solution.  In order to effectively build a robust defense system, South Korea and the United States must look to update its current defense capabilities.  This would include ensuring personnel have access to the most up-to-date equipment and working to make missiles currently in South Korea more accurate and versatile.  THAAD should be viewed as a last resort defense mechanism, simply because a missile would have to fly past Seoul in order for it to be effective.

South Korea and the United States must do everything to ensure diplomatic damages to relations with China and Russia are minimized.  This would include ensuring China and Russia that THAAD will only be used in the case of North Korean provocation, and as a last resort at that.  This can be accomplished by establishing strict protocols for the usage of THAAD which would be approved by every nation in the region – America, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China.  Implementing this would ensure that China and Russia’s concerns are voiced and addressed, which could result in more multilateral support for THAAD deployment.

THAAD is a step in the right direction.  Ironing out the details, however, will prove a difficult task for the United States and South Korea.  In order to make THAAD deployment more successful, the United States and South Korea must work to ensure THAAD is a layer of defense which can be implemented with success into the current defense structure of the Korean peninsula, while also working to gain more international favorability of defense system.  In summary, THAAD is worth the political parlay, as long as work is done to ensure a minimization of damage in relations resulting from the deployment.

Notes

+Cha, Victor. The Impossible State: North Korea Past, Present, and Future.  New York: Harpers Collins, 2013.

Corrections and Updates:

November 22: While writing this piece, North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, further highlighting the push for WMDs by Pyongyang.

 

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