China's Affair with the 'Other Korea'

China is keeping North Korea on life support even as it woos the South.

China is playing good cop/bad cop with South Korea in ways that may be detrimental to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) security and the U.S.-ROK alliance. While Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul (pointedly snubbing North Korea) last July was a seductive move to woo the ROK, Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan’s warning against the ROK deploying U.S. THAAD missile-defense systems earlier this month sought to intimidate Seoul.

Putting the squeeze on Seoul over missile defense is yet another effort by Beijing to have it both ways. On the one hand, China keeps North Korea on life support as Pyongyang builds ever-more-capable ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. It provides North Korea with oil, food and other goods and also protects it at the UN after Pyongyang’s various provocations. This support both ensures the continued division of Korea and helps China maintain a buffer between itself and U.S.-allied South Korea.

On the other hand, China has also become increasingly important to the South Koreans. China is already Seoul’s largest trading partner and has become increasingly important to the South Korean economy. This limits South Korea’s ability to pressure China over its North Korea policy.

Now China is seeking a veto over ROK defense policy by trying to portray South Korea’s efforts to defend itself as part of China’s broader “containment” narrative, which claims that just about every U.S. action is threatening China. Like the rest of U.S. “rebalancing” policies in Asia, ROK deployment of THAAD or even Seoul’s acquisition of less capable missile-defense systems that are interoperable with U.S.-Japanese systems is viewed by Beijing as part of a larger U.S. strategy to block China’s rise and neutralize its nuclear deterrent.

Without getting into the delusional nature of Beijing’s allegations, U.S. missile-defense policies have no such capability. Similarly, ever since North Korea test fired a Taepodong-2 missile over Japan in 1998—the first time since WW2 that missiles flew over Japan—a shocked Tokyo has responded by building a missile-defense system to protect against the threat from Pyongyang.

Pyongyang has been beavering away, honing its missile capabilities. As Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations has tirelessly documented, North Korea has tested a total of twenty-nine missiles in 111 tests over the past year alone. This troubling reality has generated discussion between U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) and Seoul about possible THAAD deployments. Beijing chooses to conveniently ignore this threat.

South Korea has limited its efforts to a “national missile defense” program to decidedly short-range technology. Geography makes even short-range missiles a real threat to Seoul, and South Korean officials say that their missile defense will be “interoperable” with the United States’ system.

But South Korea has thus far opted for modest systems, not integrally linked to the US-Japan missile defense network. It has purchased from the Israelis C3I Citron tree system and two Green Pine early warning radars. It has deployed PAC-2 point defense systems (rather than the more capable PAC-3) and it has AEGIS cruisers with SM-2 (rather than the more advanced SM3-2A missiles). But these systems may be insufficient to deal with the threat of increasingly sophisticated North Korean missiles. Meeting that threat requires long-range detection and a strong regional command-and-control.

If Pyongyang launched some of its recently tested short-range missiles or medium-range or longer missiles, Seoul would likely be unable to detect missiles coming head-on and there would not be ample warning time to utilize voluntary interoperability to connect to U.S. X-band radars in Japan—which would likely see the missile from a side angle much earlier—in time to shoot the missile down.

This problem would be remedied by South Korea networking into the U.S.-Japanese radar system, in which case radar sharing would happen automatically and in plenty of time to interdict a North Korean missile. This does not necessarily mean deploying THAAD, but only SM3-2A intermediate-range systems.

Seoul has been reluctant to take this step for fear of offending China, even though U.S. missile-defense programs are designed to counter small missile powers like North Korea and Iran. They are unable to threaten swarms of missiles and certainly not China’s second-strike capabilities. Moreover, budgetary and technical obstacles would likely prevent the United States from developing such a capability for the foreseeable future, if ever.

Nonetheless, many in South Korea fear that China would see such U.S.–South Korean­­–Japanese cooperation as part of a containment strategy aimed at Beijing, and are thus reluctant to pursue it—even at the expense of their own national security.