On 7th March 2017, the US confirmed that the ‘first elements’ of the controversial THAAD missile defence system had been sent to an air base near Seoul in South Korea, a day after North Korea tested four ballistic missiles. According to the BBC, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that the system would be operational ‘as early as April.’
In response, Chinese foreign spokesman Geng Shuang stated that China strongly against the deployment of the missile defence system and would ‘resolutely take necessary measures to defend our own security interests.’ Russia, in the meantime, has also stated that it would take necessary means to defend its security interests. According to Sputnik International, a senior Russian senator argued that the deployment of THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea violates the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and ‘serves as one of the factors toward Russia’s withdrawal from it.’
So what is the THAAD system and why did China and Russia strongly opposed it if the aim of the missile defence system is to defend South Korea from North Korea’s potential aggressions?
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) is developed by the US Army and functions to shoot down short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase using a hit-to-kill approach. What is equally important in the missile defence system is the powerful AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar. According to CNN, the radar could provide the first warning of any missile launched from North Korea.
Why is the THAAD System aimed at defending the US rather than South Korea?
Here comes the controversial part of the defence system. Arguably, the THAAD system in South Korea is more effective in defending the US rather than South Korea. Strategically speaking, North Korea may not need its missile system to launch a military attack to South Korea. North Korea possesses larger conventional military forces compared with its southern counterpart. According to the Telegraph, North Korea ‘enjoys a two-to-one advantage’ in terms of soldiers and artillery pieces over South Korea. Although some people argue that North Korea’s conventional military capability is largely ‘outclassed,’ the North argues that it would ‘sending down a rain of fire’ to South Korea if the war breaks out again. In short, considering the North’s privilege in numbers and the geographical proximity between North Korea and South Korea, conventional military means may be more effective for the North to attack its southern neighbour than launching missiles against the South.
While some people argue that North Korea’s nuclear warheads are developed to attack South Korea, arguably, the main driving factor that contributed to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons is the constant nuclear threats posed by the US. The US threatened to use nuclear weapons to attack North Korea as early as the Korean War. In the 2000s, the former President Bush famously categorized North Korea as the ‘axis of evil’ together with Iraq and Iran. Subsequently, the US and its allies invaded Iraq to topple the regime. Until then, North Korea’s leaders started to seriously consider its nuclear capability because they think Iraq would not be invaded if Iraq has nuclear warheads. Consequently, North Korea tested its first nuclear warhead in 2006 and went on conducted its fourth nuclear test in 2016. In order to understand North Korea’s intentions, its nuclear tests have to be combined with its missile tests as missiles can give North Korea a means to use its nuclear weapons. According to BBC, the ranges of North Korea’s missiles are from 1300 km to 8000 km. However, Seoul is located only 57 km from the border between South Korea and North Korea and Seoul is only 193 km from Pyongyang. Therefore, the argument that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles are targeting South Korea is not so convincing.
If the THAAD system is not effective in defending South Korea from North Korea, why then did the US urge them to install it?
As mentioned above, what is equally important in THAAD system is the X-band radar. The radar can provide the US a means to servile China and Russia. The X-band radar designed in THAAD system is believed to be effective to cover till mid-west China. The mid-west of China is believed to be the territory where China’s land-based nuclear forces are frequently rotating around. According to international think tanks, China currently possesses around 250 nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear weapons possessed by China is enough to cause devastation to the world but it is limited comparing with the total numbers of the US nuclear warheads. The frequent rotation of China’s land-based nuclear forces is required to maintain China’s minimum deterrence nuclear posture against the US. However, if THAAD is completely deployed to South Korea, China’s ability to maintain minimum nuclear deterrence would be severely compromised.
The same logic can also be applied to Russia. The headquarter of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok, is located quite close to the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, if THAAD is completely deployed in South Korea, Russia’s ability to operate its Pacific Fleet would also be severely compromised. Facing Japan and the US in the Pacific area, Russia would certainly be threatened by the X-band radar that comes together with THAAD system.
The deployment of THAAD to South Korea certainly makes the security and strategic landscape in East Asia more complex than before. The biggest issue here is that THAAD system could potentially provoke North Korea, China and Russia. Regarding the nuclear issues, the nuclear deterrence postures of all the countries listed above are compromised to various degrees facing the X-band radar. In terms of China, there are certainly not many options remained for China to cope with the threat posed by THAAD. China can either increase the number of its nuclear warheads to meet the number of the US or launch pre-emptive actions to deter further deployment of THAAD, compromise the ability of THAAD or destroy THAAD system. None of the reactions is favourable in regional and even international security. For North Korea, North Korea may become more aggressive facing THAAD system because its limited nuclear deterrence capability facing the US is dramatically compromised by THAAD system. It is not likely to see North Korea return to the negotiation table in terms of the potential denuclearization should THAAD been deployed to South Korea. For Russia, as mentioned above, the withdraw from the New START treaty seems to be more legitimate in the face of THAAD system.
The deployment of THAAD to South Korea has clearly threatened important regional states. It has deepened strategic rivalries between China and the US, Russia and the US to a large degree, and North Korea and the US to a less degree. This report argues that the deployment of THAAD is not favourable to long-term regional security and stability. The relevant parties should negotiate for the further deployment of THAAD in South Korea rather than doing it without necessary negotiations to avoid potential military clashes in the region.
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