SEOUL—Official moves towards the deployment—fiercely opposed by China—of a US missile defense system in South Korea highlight the inherent dangers of disunity in dealing with North Korea’s growing military threat, analysts say.
Hours after North Korea’s long-range rocket launch on Sunday, South Korean and US military officials announced they would begin formal discussions on placing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System on the North’s doorstep.
The rationale was a clear necessity to upgrade the defense posture of the South Korea-US military alliance “against North Korea’s advancing threats,” said Yoo Jeh-Seung, Seoul’s deputy defense minister for policy.
Yoo’s reasoning is hard to fault in the wake of the North’s fourth nuclear test on January 6 and Monday’s rocket launch, which was widely regarded as a covert ballistic missile test.
“This nuclear testing coupled with the testing of ballistic missile technology … was always likely to strengthen the argument that South Korea needs to bolster its missile defenses,” said Ben Goodlad, principal weapons analyst at IHS Aerospace, Defense and Security.
But beyond the strategic logic lies a diplomatic imperative, which suggests an eventual THAAD deployment may be less motivated by what North Korea is doing and more by what China is not doing.
China is North Korea’s main diplomatic protector, and both Washington and Seoul have been pressing Beijing to take a tougher line with Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program.
But China, wary of the consequences of a collapsing North Korea on its border, has resisted punitive sanctions before, and looks set to do so again as the UN Security Council debates its response to Pyongyang’s latest provocations.
According to Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its North Korea website, 38North, frustration with China’s stance has driven forward the possibility of deploying THAAD in South Korea.
“This is a way of sending a signal to China that what North Korea does has real consequences, including consequences for Beijing’s own security interests,” Wit said.
China’s response to that signal was swift and unequivocally negative.
While it only managed a rather muted expression of “regret” over the North’s rocket launch, it was quick to voice its “deep concern” at the prospect of South Korea introducing the US missile system.