THAAD: The Moment of Decision Has Arrived

Pyongyang's belligerence has forced the issue for Seoul.

On January 5, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test. Pyongyang also conducted another submarine-launched ballistic missile ejection test in December of last year, demonstrating that the Kim regime is intent on developing deliverable nuclear weapons that can hit the United States. Yet, China, which can do the most to clamp down on North Korea, is still refusing to do so, despite the deterioration in Beijing-Pyongyang relations over the last few years. To be sure, China began to implement UN sanctions after North Korea’s third nuclear test in February 2013—except that Chinese trade with North Korea grew by 10.4 percent in 2013 and by 4.9 percent in 2014. In 2015, China-North Korea trade decreased by 15 percent, but the decline was due to the slowdown in China’s economy. In fact, Beijing has been working to improve relations with Pyongyang since late 2014 and early 2015.

Instead of pressuring the Kim regime, China wants to restore a “normal,” and perhaps even still “special,” relationship with North Korea, although the upward trajectory in Beijing-Pyongyang relations will be bumpy (as demonstrated by the recent Moranbong incident and the nuclear test). While China’s shifting position on North Korea is disappointing, Seoul now has every reason to discuss the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) openly at the senior official level with the United States. Seoul also has reason to present an ultimatum to Beijing: Clamp down and remove the North Korean nuclear and missile threats by any means necessary, or South Korea will exercise its sovereign right to deploy the missile defense system in response to the growing danger posed by the Kim regime.

THAAD is an anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase. The system is a topic of much public debate in both South Korea and the United States, given North Korea’s continuous development of nuclear and missile capabilities. Yet Beijing adamantly opposes the deployment of THAAD, warning Seoul totake account of China's concerns and worries,” thereby attempting to wield a veto over South Korea’s sovereign decision making. While the deployment of the system would not seriously affect China’s nuclear second-strike capability vis-à-vis the United States, China fears that the deployment could lead to greater U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral security cooperation, by integrating the Korean peninsula-based defense systems with U.S. and Japanese sensors in northeast Asia. Especially given the potential for dual use of THAAD to monitor missile launches from both North Korea and northeastern China, Beijing perceives potential introduction of the system in northeast Asia as Washington’s broader effort to forge a trilateral coalition to contain China’s rise.

Because South Korea has been seeking China’s cooperation on North Korea, Seoul, at least at the official level, has been maintaining a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” with “three ‘no’s” regarding THAAD: no request for deployment from the United States, no consultation with the United States and no decision. Moreover, South Korean president Park Geun-hye has been working assiduously to improve Seoul’s relations with Beijing. Park has held six bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the past few years, and even stood with him and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the military parade in Tiananmen Square celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Yet South Korea’s efforts, to date, have not paid off. Beijing is openly and earnestly seeking to restore its relations with Pyongyang, to maintain North Korea as a strategic buffer in response to deteriorating U.S.-China and China-Japan relations. At the same time, Pyongyang is continuing its efforts to develop greater nuclear and missile capabilities.

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