By Kenneth Lee
In recent years, the United States expressed interested in deploying the Theater High Altitude Area Defense missile system or THAAD, onto the Korean peninsula to counter North Korea’s growing missile threats. Earlier in June, General Curtis Scaparrotti of United States Forces Korea was quoted in Yonhap News saying he personally “recommended the deployment of the THAAD missiles to South Korea”; yet, South Korea’s response to the General’s suggestion was rather bleak. South Korea’s former Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin stated that Korea has “no plans to purchase the missile system” and will rely on their own domestic missile defense (MD) system. Many believe Korea’s growing economic cooperation with China to be the key factor in Seoul forgoing THAAD, but this assessment seems rather simplistic.
No one denies China’s economic leverage played a factor in Korea’s decision, especially when considering the proposal for THAAD came around the time when President Xi Jinping was scheduled to visit South Korea in July to discuss bilateral cooperation, but it is unlikely that Seoul would compromise an essential element of its security even for China. For example, South Korea regularly purchases various high-end weapons platforms such as Lockheed Martin F-35s and Aegis class ships, and Seoul participates in various military exercises with the U.S. on a regular basis. In addition, South Korea and the United States have always assured the global community that all military exercises in the region are in response to North Korea and not China. Therefore, Korea’s reluctance to purchase THAAD doesn’t seem to be solely a matter of Chinese intervention, but even if Seoul were to select a new MD system, the perpetuating threats by the North provide enough legitimacy for Korea to purchase THAAD despite Chinese concerns. Lastly, South Korea’s decision to donate a warship to the Philippines on August 5th suggests that Seoul continues to make military decisions based on its perceptions of its own national security interests. So, if China’s influence over Seoul is somewhat exaggerated, why is South Korea reluctant to purchase THAAD?
Cost is perhaps the most prominent deterrent for South Korea when it comes to purchasing THAAD. According to a thediplomat.com, a single THAAD system can cost between $800 to $950 million, which is roughly the price of a South Korean Sejong the Great-class Aegis destroyer. Logistically, maintaining and upgrading the system is not only costly, but implementing THAAD will require Korea to integrate their MD system with Japan and the United States. This aspect is particularly difficult since Korea-Japan relations are at an all-time low and since Seoul is fretful of Tokyo’s recent decision to exercise collective self-defense.
The effectiveness of THAAD is another debated issue. On one hand, South Korea realizes that a reliable MD system is needed against the North, but THAAD is not the most practical system for several reasons. First, THAAD is intended to intercept missiles in high-altitudes, yet most missiles North Korea possesses are low to medium altitude missiles that are airborne for a short period of time, thus countering these missiles are very difficult. Second, the United States’ and Japan’s advocacy for THAAD and an integrated missile defense system is to provide early warning mechanisms against ballistic missiles intended for Washington and Tokyo, but not necessarily for Seoul. Finally, North Korea posses some 13,000 artillery as well as 300 missiles stationed near the DMZ and the payload from these weapons can reach Seoul within minutes. The sheer number of these weapons combined with their proximity to Seoul means that Korea is reluctant to purchase even cheaper and battle tested systems. For example, since 2011, South Korean military officials have sought to acquire the Israeli made Iron Dome system, which has an impressive 80 percent knock down rate against incoming rockets. Priced around $50 million, Iron Dome is significantly cheaper than THAAD, yet while Seoul continues to flirt with the idea of purchasing the Israeli MD system, the North’s ability to launch 7,000 projectiles per hour means that no MD system can completely prevent missiles or artillery from striking Seoul.
As shown, there are factors other than China that deter Korea from purchasing THAAD, the most prevailing being that the system’s enormous cost yields relatively little added benefits. However, if the U.S. is adamant about installing THAAD on the Korean Peninsula, certain measures can be taken to make this a possibility. First, the U.S. and Japan should reduce the price of the system and not look to offload the expense onto Korea since the latter two countries have the most to benefit from THAAD. Second, convincing Korea for the need for an effective and interoperable MD system with Japan and the U.S. should be another key priority. The North’s current inability to attack the U.S. mainland prevents Pyongyang from carrying out more brazen attacks on Seoul, but if the regime were to obtain the existential ability to reach the U.S., provocations against the South could escalate both in frequency and intensity. A reliable MD system such as THAAD will deter North Korea from reaching the U.S. mainland and by extension help to limit Pyongyang’s aggression towards the South. As for integrating the system, this will require the Korea-Japan relationship to improve not only on a political level, but Japan would have to take genuine steps assuring their recent military expansion is not a threat to Seoul, but an opportunity for greater collective security and cost sharing opportunity. Third, the U.S. should wait until the political climate in East Asia is in legitimate need of a new MD system. Currently, China’s objection to a MD system and the shortcomings of the North’s missile capabilities, as well as the relative stability of the region, are potential reasons to move more cautiously on installing THAAD. However, there is little doubt North Korea will continue to conduct missile tests; thus waiting for the appropriate moment of regional instability can legitimize the need for THAAD to all objectors.
Kenneth Lee received his Bachelors in Political Science from New York University and his Masters in International Relations from Seoul National University. His interests include: East Asian Security, Military Security and Inter-Korean Security. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.