The International Tension Over THAAD


Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is an affiliated system of the United States’ Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS)1. On July 8, 2016, South Korea and the United States agreed to deploy THAAD in Seongju county to build up South Korea’s defense system against North Korea’s threat of nuclear weapons and missiles[2]. However, China strongly opposes the deployment, claiming the detectable range of the radar is far from needed, posing threats to China’s national security. North Korea, on the other hand, has been threatening the world with multiple attempts of nuclear testing in 2017 to counter the prospective THAAD installation.

  • The Future of THAAD

Right now, it seems rather clear that THAAD will be deployed this year. While Seoul and Washington agreed last year that THAAD would be installed by the end of July 2017, the process was expedited and could arrive earlier in June3. However, after the impeachment of the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the South Korean presidential election on May 9 may change the installing progress of THAAD or even terminate the project. Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in are currently the frontrunners of South Korea’s presidential election. Ahn has publicly supported the deployment of THAAD while Moon is likely to “do a review of the validity of the decision”4. The turnout of the presidential election would decide the actual implementation of THAAD.

Potential Influence

  • South Korea

Undoubtedly, the deployment of THAAD increases the national security of South Korea. South Korea currently has the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC) system, a defense system with an operational range of 20 to 35 kilometers. Moreover, South Korea will also develop an independent Korean Air and Missile Defense system (KAMD), serving as lower-altitude interceptors5. As THAAD functions as a high-altitude defense system equipped with the largest air-transportable x-band radar in the world6, South Korea would have a multi-layer defensive shield against attacks from North Korea.

However, by cooperating with the United States and undermining China’s relative military strength, South Korea faces direct retribution from China economically. Chinese state media has reported articles emphasizing the threats that THAAD poses to China, leading patriotic Chinese citizens to cease spending on Korean products and traveling to South Korea. Lotte Duty Free, the number 1 duty-free shop in South Korea and the corporation that offered to provide land to THAAD, experienced tumbled sales of 40 percent between March 20 and March 26 from Chinese customers 7. Hotels in key tourist districts also reported a one-year decline in Chinese guests by 25 percent in some places to as high as 75 percent 8. Furthermore, according to South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the total number of Chinese tourists declined 21.9 percent compared with the number last year over the period of March 1-19 9.Although no official statement was made by the Chinese government to ban traveling to South Korea, China National Tourism Administration has published a statement alerting Chinese citizens to be careful when choosing South Korea as their travel destination10. “The number of Chinese visitors to South Korea is expected to drop 20 percent on-year in the second quarter and 7 percent for all of 2017. However, there is a possibility of the number of Chinese tourists plunging up to 70 percent, depending on the situation” 11. With Chinese visitors’ expenditures accounting to around 0.5 percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product, South Korea will need to take necessary actions to attract more tourists and bolster its economy through financial aid to industries and enacting new travel policies.

South Korea may also suffer from internal riots driving from dissatisfaction of its citizens. Out of a fear of radiation, anti-THAAD citizens criticize the U.S. Department of Defense and the former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye due to the lack of information provided to South Korean citizens12. Many citizens also worry that South Korea would be increasingly dependent upon the United States because THAAD will be solely operated by the United States. Given that THAAD deployment is a major issue in South Korean politics, and the current government failed to incorporate its citizen’s feelings in their decision-making, the internal stability of South Korean society could be compromised. Therefore, if THAAD is successfully deployed, protests and riots may occur due to South Korean’s anti-THAAD sentiments.

  • China

Although the U.S. and South Korea jointly stated that the installment of THAAD is deterrence to North Korea, THAAD could also “significantly damage strategic stability between the United States and China”13. To combat the threat of THAAD, as a nuclear power, China is likely to improve its nuclear capacity. Furthermore, East Asian strategic stability could be undermined.

Incompatible with the United States’ 6,800 nuclear warheads, China only has 260 warheads of nuclear arsenals14. Nonetheless, a small, survivable nuclear force of China is enough to strike any potential target or to strike against any urgent threat15. As the United States implements more ballistic defense systems to protect and deter against nuclear retaliation, the likelihood that China will upgrade its nuclear capacities increases15. Mitigating nuclear threats from North Korea with THAAD (but more likely, provoking North Korea) while intensifying nuclear threats from China would not be a desirable outcome to East Asian stability.

  • North Korea

North Korea is a dangerous actor, and it is gradually losing its closest ally, China.

After the announcement of THAAD deployment, North Korea tested a new ballistic missile in February, launched four ballistic missiles in March, and test-fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan in April this year16 17. South Korea’s more aggressive action towards North Korea is likely to lead to a more destructive arms race18. In response to the THAAD deployment, North Korea could make further moves in advancing its nuclear technology to contest against the joint force of South Korea and the U.S.

Furthermore, the close tie between North Korea and China is slowly breaking apart. Because of THAAD deployment that aims at deterring North Korean military force, China has suffered threats to its military force from South Korea and the U.S. as well. Moreover, North Korea’s ballistic missile testing poses as much threat to the U.S. and South Korea as it does to China. Consequently, in February, China announced to suspend all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year of 2017 as an effort to enforce United Nations sanctions aimed at denuclearization in North Korea. North Korea, agitated by its ally’s statement, accused China of “mean behavior” and “dancing to the tune of the United States” 19. After North Korea’s test-fire in April, Chinese state newspaper Global Times says Beijing would support the United Nations on stricter sanctions 20, such as strictly limiting oil exports. Alienation of these two “friendly nations” is likely to continue in the near future, if North Korea keeps testing its projectiles and threatening China’s national security.

  • United States

Collaborating with South Korea on THAAD, the United States worsens its tension with North Korea. Since North Korea regards THAAD as a strategic move to undermine its right to protect itself through advancing nuclear technology, the United States would face an increasing possibility to go on war with North Korea. Between North Korea and the United States, THAAD is just a catalyst that instigates intensified tension and provides causes for both countries to attack each other.

The current situation is already critical. In response to the missile testing by North Korea on April 5, the commander of the American forces has ordered an aircraft carrier and warships to move towards the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula as a show of force21. Not intimidated by the order, North Korean state media on April 11 warned of a nuclear attack if the United States shows any sign of a preemptive strike22. Hence, the tension between the U.S. and North Korea is severe and it is unpredictable if a war is going to break out in the future. While the cooperation of South Korea and the United States over THAAD functions as a form of deterrence against nuclear escalation on the Korean Peninsula, it could conversely increase the prospect of nuclear escalation with China. Moreover, North Korea, as an unpredictable actor, may react to the THAAD deployment in a disastrous way. The prospect of a war is unclear, but the U.S. and neighboring countries of North Korea should be prepared for defense or military mobilization.

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About the Author 

Kefei Wu is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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