Expert Commentary

South Korea’s Missile Defense: Balancing Between the U.S. & China

Tong Zhao
Fellow, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

North Korea’s missile test on Sunday reaffirmed the case for greater missile defense in South Korea, but it did nothing to change China’s perspective on the matter. Beijing believes that any U.S. missile defense in South Korea would undermine its strategic nuclear deterrent, and therefore its national security. The U.S. and South Korean decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system has strained relations between Seoul and Beijing. The Cipher Brief spoke with Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment in Beijing to learn more about each side’s perspective and to ask what could happen when the system is finally deployed.

The Cipher Brief: Many countries utilize missile defense systems as a vital part of their national security. Sometimes neighboring countries do not object, but in notable cases neighboring countries do. What conditions are usually present to turn the deployment of missile defense into a contentious issue?

Tong Zhao: Missile defense is a controversial issue. The technology is yet to fully mature, especially when the technology of its main target – ballistic missiles –continues to develop, and countries are working on increasingly advanced and sophisticated decoys and other penetration capabilities. There are also various types of missile defense. Theatre missile defense deals with relatively short range missiles and is less technologically challenging; whereas strategic missile defense seeks to intercept long-range and even intercontinental ballistic missiles and is thus much harder to develop.

Given its potential capability of neutralizing long-range strategic missiles, which are the main delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons, strategic missile defense becomes an increasing concern for some nuclear weapon states that worry their nuclear deterrent could be undermined. On top of that, major nuclear rivals embrace deep mistrust against each other. Even if one’s deployment of certain missile defense systems is not aimed at a third country, that country in most cases still tends to suspect so. As a result, any deployment of missile defense assets that may in theory somehow affect another country’s strategic deterrent capability has been met with vehement opposition.

In addition, missile defense has also been used as a tool by major powers to reassure their allies. Even though some protégé countries do not face a serious missile threat, they welcome the deployment by their bigger ally of missile defense assets and operating personnel on their soil as a signal of the protector’s commitment to their security. From the perspective of a potential adversary, such missile defense diplomacy represents a bigger geostrategic threat: a strengthened alliance that may have hostile intentions.

TCB: Focusing on the THAAD system deployment in South Korea, for a long time Seoul was hesitant to deploy THAAD. Why was it such a hard decision, and what changed its mind on this issue?

TZ: Often referring to itself as a shrimp among whales in East Asia, South Korea for a long time sought to strike a balance in its dealings with other major powers in the region. The United States and China are two such major powers that have a competitive relationship between themselves but both can greatly affect South Korea’s interests as well as the overall geopolitical landscape on the Korea Peninsula. Seoul has understood all along about China’s concern of U.S. missile defense deployment in the Asia Pacific; and Seoul wants to maintain some degree of independence by not fully getting incorporated into the American missile defense architecture in the region. Therefore, the focus of South Korea had been on developing its own indigenous missile defense capabilities.

However, the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs since the beginning of 2016 greatly exacerbated Seoul’s threat perception. South Korean leaders desperately sought to coordinate actions with China, but unfortunately, Beijing failed to respond adequately. This contributed to Seoul’s shifting of policy to fully embracing Washington and relying more on Washington’s security assurance. The decision to ultimately allow Washington to deploy THAAD took place against this background.

TCB: Beijing objects to THAAD on the grounds that it undermines its strategic deterrent and that its sensory equipment could be used for surveillance into Chinese territory. Are there other possible reasons why Beijing has raised objections to the deployment of THAAD?

TZ: These are indeed China’s true concerns and shaped China’s overall view on THAAD. Among Chinese analysts, there appears to be significant misunderstandings about the technical features of THAAD and the strategic intentions behind the deployment. Many Chinese analysts see THAAD as a defensive system primarily against medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cannot intercept short-range missiles (missiles with ranges less than 1,000km). This view about the technical capability of THAAD is very much debatable, but it nonetheless leads Chinese analysts to draw the conclusion that the THAAD cannot be aimed at intercepting North Korean missiles because the primary missile threat facing South Korea is North Korea’s short-range missiles. Therefore, they believe the real target must be China. With this conviction in mind, they further reach the conclusion that THAAD’s powerful radar could be part of a deliberate U.S. strategy to neutralize China’s nuclear deterrent by providing Washington with the capability to better track Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles. This convinces China that the United States is playing a strategic game of containment against China.

Under such circumstances, China fears that the deployment of THAAD will open the Pandora ’s Box of allowing the United States to deploy more advanced strategic missile defense assets of higher quality and quantity in the future on and around the Peninsula. Geopolitically, Beijing worries an integrated missile defense network will greatly enhance the security ties among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo.

TCB: Barring any upsets within the South Korean government, it appears deployment of THAAD will go as planned. Beijing has already tried to convince South Korea to halt its deployment. How might Beijing respond to the actual deployment of THAAD?

TZ: Given Beijing’s firm belief that South Korea is now knowingly working with the United States to undermine China’s strategic security interests by pushing forward the THAAD deployment, Beijing feels the need to teach South Korea a lesson, otherwise it would set a bad example to invite other countries to follow suit. On the other hand, South Korea genuinely believes that THAAD is for addressing the North Korean threat and cannot seriously undermine China’s interests. As a result, South Korea appears determined to resist Chinese pressure for the fear of setting a bad precedent to allow China to push it around on future occasions.

Retaliations and countermeasures against each other between the two countries have greatly worsened bilateral relations in all issue areas, including diplomatic, political, security, economic, trade, cultural, and people-to-people exchange. The ties between the two peoples are easy to cut but difficult to rebuild. This is a textbook example of how misunderstandings on technical issues can cause serious misjudgment about strategic intentions and a downward spiral of negative interactions. However, without the ability to think by standing in the other’s shoes, and with the blind obsession with self-righteousness and a cynical view of international politics, there is no hope of a way forward.

TCB: From the U.S. perspective, how does it weigh the decision to deploy THAAD when it is unpopular in South Korea, stirs up objections from Beijing, and is provocative to Pyongyang?

TZ: From the U.S. perspective, the decision is not a hard one. The South Korean government, including the military, wants THAAD to be deployed to protect the majority of South Korean territory. Among the South Korean public, there are more who are for the deployment than against it. Washington does not understand why Beijing is so vehemently opposed to THAAD and feels that Beijing is either being unreasonable or playing a political game. Washington also does not see how the THAAD should be seen by Pyongyang as a provocation if Pyongyang has no intent of launching a missile strike. With North Korea’s continued investment into its nuclear and missile programs, Washington rarely doubts the wisdom of deploying more missile defense capabilities.

However, Washington’s view is also quite problematic. It has refused to objectively evaluate the real missile threat from North Korea. North Korea would be conducting suicide if it launched a first missile strike armed with nuclear weapons without being provoked. Its nuclear missiles are meant as a strategic deterrence against foreign military intervention. Therefore, missile defense deployment that neutralizes the North Korean nuclear deterrent will only encourage the North to continue building more and better missiles. Even with much more investment into missile defense deployment in the future, the United States and South Korea cannot easily achieve the capability to intercept all North Korean missiles with high reliability. Regarding China, if Washington fails to fully acknowledge that Beijing is genuinely concerned about missile defense and to comprehensively engage China to narrow the perception gap, missile defense is bound to become a major obstacle for the bilateral relationship and regional stability.

The Author is Tong Zhao

Tong Zhao is a Fellow at the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.  He was previously a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow with the Managing the Atom Project and the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He has held a number of other positions, including as a nonresident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and... Read More

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