New missile system in Korean Peninsula

New missile system in Korean Peninsula

As expected, the US and South Korea agreed on July 8, 2016, to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery to be operated by US Forces Bay (USKF), which includes 28,500 US troops based in South Korea. This is likely to worsen Washington’s relations with North Korea and Beijing.

The decision came in response to Pongyang’s increasing threat, especially after the nuclear test of January 2016 and subsequent multiple ballistic missile tests. A statement released by the USKF said the decision to deploy the anti-ballistic missile system is “a defensive measure to ensure the security of South Korea and its people, and to protect Alliance military forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats.”

South Korea and the US have not yet revealed a location for the THAAD deployment, built by Lockheed Martin Corp. The decision to freeze the final location shall depend upon several considerations such as system’s effectiveness, environment, health and safety requirements. A joint US-South Korea working group is preparing to determine the best location for the deployment. 

One country that would be utmost unhappy and worried is China, which has long been critical of potential deployment of THAAD, even before the decision was announced about its deployment because of its potential impact on the Chinese offensive missile capabilities in the region.

No sooner than the deployment decision was announced, did China voice resolute oppo-sition against THAAD and “strongly urge the US and South Korea to stop.” In order to alleviate the concerns of China and possibly Russia, the US-South Korea joint statement clarified that THAAD in Korea “would not be directed towards any third party nations.”

Though North Korea did not react to the deployment immediately, it did react aggressively to the new sanctions declared by the US Treasury Department for the human rights violations as “a declaration of war.” The Obama administration has also urged other nations to cut emp-loyment of North Korean workers as a way to reduce Pyong-yang’s access to foreign currency.

Opinion in South Korea is divided with some political parties supporting and others opposing. The spokesperson of the ruling Saenuri Party defended the deployment decision because of the threat of North Korean nuclear armaments and missiles including the recent Musudan launch and said that “such measures will greatly contribute to our country’s defence and safety of the people.” The party also made it clear that it would not be directed towards any third party nation.

The Minjoo Party, however, was critical of the decision, saying that there was not enough discussion on it and questioned the deployment’s practical use.

The People’s Party, the second largest opposition party in South Korea, neither opposed nor supported the deployment of the system, but said the government should have considered the likely reaction of China’s opposition on this matter, and the following financial damage that South Koreans might have to suffer as a result of worsened Sino-South Korea relations before agreeing to the deployment.

Experts opined how effective a single THAAD battery would be as they say that if North Korea launches enough missiles quickly enough, “it could potentially either outnumber the THAAD interceptors or outpace the reloading process, or overwhelm the tracking radar, which would not only have to track incoming missiles, but also the interceptors fired by the THAAD battery itself.”  

China’s objections
The system was expected to be in operation by the end of 2017. China objects to the THAAD deployment because it suspects the system’s radar can reach its territory. It urged both the US and South Korea to put a stop to it. The threat perception in South was heightened when Pyongyang conducted the fourth nuclear test in February and next month launched a rocket to put an object into space orbit.

The UN Security Council condemned the launch, which it felt was a test of a long-range missile in disguise, because North Korea is prohibited from doing so under the Security Council resolutions. Pyongyang has all alo-ng rejected such sanctions, wh-ich it says are an infringement on its sovereignty and the right to space exploration. To up the ante, it again launched in June an intermediate range ballistic missile off its east coast. It was again suspected to be a test that showed some advancement in the weapon’s engine system. 

China fears that THAAD deployment would destabilise the security balance in the region without achieving anything to end the North’s nuclear programme. It warned both the US and South Korea to desist from taking any steps that could complicate the regional situation and harm China’s strategic interests.

Though the decision to deploy the THAAD system was effectively taken in February, the delay was because of China’s opposition. The deployment issue is quite sensitive because South Korea and China are one of the largest trading partners and the US traded carefully not to cause damage to this strong economic relationship. Yet, the seriousness of North Korean threat led the US to go ahead to the THAAD deployment. The security situation in the region is likely to get more complicated.

(The writer is ICCR Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)

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