North Korea has once again been thrust into the spotlight, with the recent development and testing of its first newly acquired intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – the Hwasong-14. This marks a major milestone in North Korea’s missile development program, which has sparked worldwide condemnation and concern over the newly acquired weapon of mass destruction that this nuclear armed nation now possesses, and the danger that this poses to global peace and security. With a maximum range of 6,700km, this ICBM development now puts the United States, specifically Alaska, within range of a missile strike from North Korea; as well as the Australian mainland. North Korea’s sporadic spouts of international threats are now being supported by a larger and more dangerous missile arsenal that continues to cause discernment and worry amongst the global community.
It is clear that any possible antagonistic action from North Korea should be contained as much as possible, to ensure peace and stability within the Asia-Pacific region and ultimately throughout the world. One of the more recent means of doing so is through the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence systems (THAAD) by the United States military within South Korea. In essence, THAAD systems act as a missile defence shield, designed to detect and shoot down intermediate ballistic missiles in their terminal phase launched from North Korea in the event of an attack. In July 2016, South Korea and the United States agreed to deploy the THAAD missile defences in Korea as a defensive countermeasure against North Korea. Although technically the THAAD systems serve a practical defensive purpose – to bolster the safety and security of the Republic of Korea – THAAD has evolved into a controversial political topic that permeated through the South Korean elections in May, 2017. The current South Korean President, Moon Jae-In, favouring rapprochement with North Korea and simultaneously expressing doubt over the United States’ role in the defence of the Republic, halted further deployment of THAAD systems soon after his election. The decision to halt further THAAD deployments within South Korea may be a dangerous gamble for President Moon Jae-In, which can result in the worsening of U.S-R.O.K military ties as well as the emboldening of North Korea.
Ever since the conclusion of the Korean War and the signing of the American-Korean Mutual Defence Treaty in 1953, American troops have been deployed and stationed in South Korea to maintain stability within the Korean region, and to act as a protective measure for South Korea against North Korea. With a relatively unstable nuclear armed nation at the border, it is in South Korea’s best interests to bolster its own defence as much as possible. In the case of the Korean peninsula, American military presence has helped to maintain the careful balance of peace in a highly volatile region by preventing significant escalations from occurring. President Moon Jae-In’s decision to block further THAAD deployments by the United States to South Korea can be seen as an attempt by the South Korean government to distance itself from its most important military ally, ultimately undermining this essential defence relationship. As the United States also has a relatively large number of troops stationed in South Korea, THAAD serves not only as a protective measure for South Korea but also to the American soldiers stationed there. If the South Korean government refuses to allow the installation of these defensive systems in order to safeguard the interests of both the United States and South Korea, this may wrongfully signal South Korea’s intention to water down essential militaristic ties with the United States. As American military presence has provided the Korean peninsula with stability through security, any move that may damage or erode militaristic ties with the United States would be concerning, in the interests of peace.
The blocking of THAAD deployments to South Korea not only undermines its essential relationship with the United States, but ultimately results in the emboldening of North Korea. Any move that weakens U.S-R.O.K military ties will empower North Korea, as the American military serves as South Korea’s major defensive shield against the North. What President Moon Jae-In saw as a move to bring back a degree of transparency into Korean politics after the impeachment of former President Park Geun-Hye, North Korea may see as a militaristic concession to China (which strongly opposed the deployment of THAAD to South Korea) and ultimately to North Korea itself. This is clearly made evident by their recent development and testing of their first ICBM with the intent of arming it with nuclear warheads in the future. Halting the deployment of THAAD has not achieved much, if not anything, as far as de-escalating tensions with North Korea is concerned. Rather, it has likely resulted in an emboldened North Korea, motivated now more than ever after seeing South Korea’s willingness to make defensive concessions, to persist with its missile development program that continues to concern the global community.
Admittedly, South Korea has been placed in a major conundrum. As far as THAAD is concerned, South Korea currently faces:
- Pressure from the United States – South Korea’s major defensive ally – to deploy THAAD;
- Pressure from China – South Korea’s most important trading partner – to stop the deployment of THAAD;
- An emboldened North Korea that continues to develop its vast missile arsenal.
Unfortunately for South Korea, this is a lose-lose situation, and it is likely that siding one country over the other can produce repercussions. President Moon Jae-In must consider the choices carefully – deploying THAAD will reaffirm South Korea’s commitment to the U.S.-R.O.K relationship. At the same time, further deployment of THAAD will likely incur harsher economic repercussions from China, who has already implemented economic sanctions against South Korea for the initial deployment of THAAD, resulting in a significant economic loss for South Korea of around USD$15 billion. Rolling back the deployment of THAAD may signify a major blow for the U.S.-R.O.K relationship, but will satisfy China’s concerns (and simultaneously North Korea). The decision on THAAD depends on the priorities of the South Korean government. Should defence be prioritised? Or will the economic losses be too significant and risky?
Assessing all options, the deployment of THAAD to South Korea still remains necessary and essential, for the sake of the security and stability of the Korean peninsula. Whilst China has made their opposition to THAAD clear, and has already signalled their intention to increase economic sanctions on South Korea following further THAAD deployment, it is unlikely that a major trade conflict will arise between China and South Korea as a result. Whilst China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, South Korea is also China’s fourth largest trading partner, and China’s most important source of foreign tourists. Therefore, whilst continued deployment of THAAD will expectedly trigger a negative response from China, an escalation to a major trade conflict between the two nations would hurt both China and South Korea.
THAAD deployment to South Korea has been overly politicised. The purpose and function of the THAAD systems has and continues to serve as practical and necessary defensive measures to safeguard the safety and security of South Korea, as well as to maintain strong defensive ties with the United States. Ultimately, maintaining South Korea’s own safety is a major national interest, but so is maintaining the safety of the global community, whose stability is influenced by the ongoing situation in the Korean peninsula.