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Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Breaking the Myth of Missile Defense
Special Contribution
By Choi Kang & Kim Gi-Bum
A missile gets fired from a South Korean military vessel

Since the mid-1990s, missile defense has been a controversial security issue in South Korea. Over the years, as the North Korean missile threat increased, the United States has stressed that it wants South Korea to cooperate with the United States on missile defense. But in response, South Korea, unlike Japan, has refused to join the US-led missile defense system in Northeast Asia. Instead, it has opted to build its own independent missile defense system, known as the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD). However, in recent days, a slight, but important, change in South Korea’s position on missile defense has been detected: that is, while continuously moving forward on its path towards a separate and independent missile defense system, South Korea now says it will cooperate with the United States on missile defense “interoperability.” As a result, South Korea has taken up a position of “strategic ambiguity” on missile defense cooperation with the United States.

The South Korean government’s vague policy stance over missile defense comes from its concern over possible Chinese reaction against any missile defense system development on its periphery. Strategic ambiguity is understandable especially when one takes into account the deepening economic relationship between South Korea and China. On the other hand, it is also true that the ROK–US alliance forms the backbone of South Korea’s security. Under the circumstances, retaining strategic ambiguity will only arouse suspicion from both sides and harm South Korea’s political and economic national interests. Thus, the ROK government should now clarify its position and erase the ambiguity over missile defense cooperation. Improving missile defense cooperation with the United States and eventually deploying the THAAD system on the peninsula will bring us more strategic benefit than do us harm. Not only will it boost our chance of survival against North Korea’s asymmetric military threats, it will also increase our leverage on China with regard to the North Korea problem. Moreover, by getting actively involved in the US–Japan led regional missile defense network, South Korea can balance Japan’s influence on the system’s operation and make its voice heard when dealing with possible North Korean missile provocations. When ROK–Japan relations are in as bad a shape as they are now, this last point should not be overlooked.

Participation vs. Cooperation

Whether South Korea should participate in the US-led missile defense system and whether it should cooperate with the United States on missile defense are, in fact, totally different questions. The former means that South Korea’s missile defense would become a part of a US system aimed primarily at protecting US security interests, whereas the latter means that South Korea would use parts of the US missile defense system to protect itself more effectively from North Korean missile threats. In essence, South Korea is cooperating with the United States and should enhance such cooperation further to safeguard itself against ever-increasing North Korean missile threats.

South Korea began to modernize and upgrade its missile defense system from the mid-2000s, and is now pursuing KAMD, which was introduced during the administration of President Lee Myung-bak. Before that, South Korea was primarily concerned with the threat of North Korea’s artillery, heavily concentrated along the border with South Korea. However, with the mounting threat from North Korea’s missiles, South Korea has come to realize that it needs more reliable countermeasures against such threats. There is a general consensus among Korean citizens on the necessity of missile defense. The Asan Daily Poll conducted in May 2013 asked the public whether they think missile defense is necessary. The result was that 77.1 percent of the South Korean public polled supported the introduction of this system. Furthermore, the public supported both the development of an independent missile defense system (83.1%) and enhancing cooperation with the US system (75.4%).

To ensure and enhance the reliability and effectiveness of its missile defense, South Korea should further improve the interoperability of its own missile defense with that of the United States and push ahead for an integrated operating system, especially in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), if not in missiles themselves. By having more interoperable and integrated ISR systems, the detection and early warning capability of KAMD would be further enhanced by utilizing US advanced assets including its TPY-2 radar, multi-purpose satellite and infrared imagery devices. One US expert explained in detail that in order to maximize radar detection of any missile launch on the Korean Peninsula, the radar should be installed and running from the “side” of the peninsula, not “on the peninsula” and “right in line with” the ballistic trajectory. Along with the fact that a successful KAMD operation requires an ISR activity covering a three thousand kilometer radius, the necessity of seamless inter-operability between KAMD and US MD systems is undeniable even if the only goal of KAMD is to shoot down hot DPRK missiles.

Consequently, if the need for missile defense cooperation is supported by relevant policies and sufficient budgets, it would allow South Korea and the United States to neutralize, or at least reduce, North Korea’s missile threats. It would also have a significant deterrent effect vis-à-vis North Korea by showing the integrity and robustness of the ROK-US combined defense posture, even after the transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea. In addition, it would further increase South Korea’s strategic value within the alliance system and enable South Korea to speak with a greater voice on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

Strategic Ambiguity vs. Strategic Clarity

If greater cooperation by South Korea with the US missile defense system as outlined above would yield such results, we may wonder why South Korea has been reluctant to talk about missile defense publicly even with strong public support, and has maintained strategic ambiguity on this issue. The main reason is South Korea’s concern over possible Chinese reactions. But South Korea cannot maintain strategic ambiguity indefinitely while cooperating with the United States. Instead, it should make a strategic decision to clear up suspicions coming from both ends—the United States and China. In other words, South Korea should be firm and clear on missile defense by saying that it will do both unilaterally and in a combined manner whatever is necessary to protect its people and safeguard national security interests. The crucial lesson of history is that the only way to preserve the life of a nation in times of crises is to prepare for the worst when a nation has the luxury of time to do so. Korea, in recent history, has learned this the hard way and should therefore not hesitate to pursue measures that will ensure the protection of its people and its national interests.

It is well known that China has been very critical of US missile defense in general, and especially so when it comes to Northeast Asia. China has argued against the establishment of any anti-Chinese coalition led by the United States. It has also been very critical of the ROK–US alliance, describing it as a relic of the Cold War that should be dismantled. If South Korea joins or cooperates with the US-led missile defense system, China would interpret this as South Korea electing to join an anti-Chinese “virtual alliance” with the United States and Japan. China has consistently argued that trilateral security cooperation among the three countries is designed to contain and antagonize China and to perpetuate the US-centered regional security architecture.

To South Korea, China is a “(comprehensive) strategic cooperation partner”. This partnership exists for two reasons, namely North Korea as well as economy and trade. South Korea needs Chinese cooperation in solving its problems with North Korea, including the nuclear issue. To secure Chinese support and cooperation in solving the North Korea problem, over the years South Korea has been very passive, or even silent, on a number of controversial issues, including missile defense, so as not to provoke China. It is doubtful, however, whether such a policy of appeasement has been successful in securing Chinese cooperation in solving North Korean problems. On the contrary, South Korea’s cooperation with the United States over missile defense might move China toward a direction we desire by placing more pressure upon China.

South Korea is, however, concerned about possible Chinese indirect reactions, mostly in the area of economy and trade, should South Korea further strengthen cooperation with the United States on missile defense. China is South Korea’s No. 1 trading partner, and the volume of trade is likely to grow further. Anything that might jeopardize trade relations between the two countries would be a great concern for South Korea, as it is no secret that South Korea is excessively dependent on exports for its economic growth. Missile defense is one of them. China might react in a non-military manner, mostly in economic and trade relations, while denying any connection between the two, as it did toward Japan by banning the export of rare earth materials to Japan during a period of heightened tensions in the East China Sea. If China took such action, it would, of course, undermine its credibility as South Korea’s comprehensive strategic cooperation partner. South Korea should make this point clear.

In a word, South Korea is very reluctant to cross the line on missile defense cooperation with the United States at this time. But, to safeguard its vital national security interests, South Korea should overcome its so-called “China complex” and display a sense of self-integrity to China by making itself both clear and firm on sensitive issues, including on missile defense. Such a position would ultimately enhance South Korea’s reputation in the international community and work for South Korea in dealing with China in the coming era—short-term loss for long-term gain.

What should South Korea do, and why?

South Korea should do whatever is necessary to protect itself from the increasing missile threat from North Korea. On North Korea’s recent missile development, an analysis by Nick Hansen of commercial satellite imagery indicated that North Korea is carrying out a major construction program to upgrade the gantry and missile launch pad in the Dongchang-ri launch site, also known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The upgrade seems to be intended to enable the launch site to handle larger rockets than the Unha-3 model, which would be in violation of UNSC resolutions and poses a bigger threat to South Korea, Japan and the United States. An excess of political considerations and strategic ambiguity are not likely to serve South Korea’s national security interests any better, especially when threats are constantly increasing to higher levels. Such behavior might instead invite suspicion from both Washington and Beijing as to Seoul’s true intentions. Facing an ever-growing and multiplying asymmetrical threat from the communist hermit kingdom, South Korea should utilize government and non-government channels to explain to its neighbor the necessity and inevitability of strengthening security cooperation and coordination between South Korea and the United States to assure the safety of ROK citizens and protect national interests.

That being said, South Korea should seek further cooperation with the United States to enhance the reliability and effectiveness of its missile defense system, starting from ISR interoperability. In addition, South Korea should seriously consider the deployment of THAAD by USFK to strengthen forward defense of the United States as an ally. The technical advantage of THAAD in the Korean theater is simple: the lengthy detection range of the TPY-2 X-band radar, a component of THAAD, is critical to South Korea’s multilayered defense against North Korean missiles. Furthermore, THAAD interceptors can be used to cover higher altitudes that the KAMD cannot cover using PAC-2 and PAC-3 missiles. The strategic advantages, however, go well beyond technical considerations.

One of South Korea’s strategic benefits of introducing THAAD is that it can be used as leverage against China and signal them to be more actively engaged in solving the North Korea nuclear problem. In recent years, there have been reports and analyses indicating that China has finally come to realize that its comrade is becoming a liability to China’s own security. It seems that recommendations are actually being made to the leadership to shift China’s policy toward North Korea. China’s active participation in writing and adopting UN Security Council Resolution 2094 last year was definitely a positive sign in this direction. China’s implementation of that resolution was also accepted by many as the patron finally changing its stance towards its client. There were even news reports that major Chinese banks had halted dealings with the DPRK, including cross-border cash transfers.

Tightened economic sanctions, however, did not last as long as many had hoped. Cross-border trade between the communist allies soon picked up again late last year. For example, when a renovated bridge over the Yalu River reopened on the anniversary of the North Korean Workers’ Party last October, trucks were witnessed lining up on both sides. North Korean mineral resources and logs are sent to China in exchange for cash, food and daily commodities. Furthermore, according to a Chosun Ilbo report on February 2014 using data provided by the Korea International Trade Association, North Korea’s trade with China “rose 10.4 percent to $6.54 billion”. What this all means is that while China has the leverage to put substantial pressure on North Korea, especially more so from the economic side, its primary goal is to bring Kim Jong-un and his men back to the negotiating table. By providing them the breathing space amidst tougher sanctions, China demonstrates that it is still not willing to go far enough to destabilize the Kim family’s grip on power. At best, China’s tactical approach has changed but their strategic goal regarding the Korean Peninsula remains the same as ever.

Although South Korea’s primary purpose in developing its own missile defense capability and cooperating with the United States to enhance the system’s effectiveness is to counter North Korean nuclear and missile threats, China would feel the pressure mounting as South Korea finally acquires assets to deal with potential high-altitude threats in the future. Operating THAAD will require close coordination with US systems. At the strategic level, China would never want to see such development occur because of its prioritization of stability on its periphery. If it were to happen, China would regret its strategic miscalculation, probably one of its worst in decades. Thus, a THAAD installment in the south of the peninsula would finally push China off the tipping point, directly or indirectly, and induce it to pursue a more active policy towards North Korea.

A second strategic benefit of having advanced missile defense systems is that it will significantly enhance South Korea’s chance of survival. It will enhance combined deterrence capability vis-à-vis North Korea and provide us an appropriate measure to create some room for crisis management. In other words, the idea is to enter into a state of crisis stability with North Korea and prevent it from brandishing its nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles when confrontation escalates. North Korea’s asymmetric threat of using nuclear, biological or chemical warheads on one of its missiles would be considerably curtailed if not totally removed. With crisis stability, South Korea will be able “to avoid major war without backing down”. Being safeguarded by a multilayered missile defense, we would be in a better position to exercise escalation control and to have more options to respond in the event of a crisis. Keeping in mind that the first step to durable crisis stability would be to show North Korea that we have a visible, tangible, and relatively more credible means of deterring and responding to its hostile actions, strategic ambiguity must now give way to clarity.

Moreover, deploying THAAD coupled with KAMD would likely offset any confidence deficit in US extended deterrence. A simple, one-dimensional result of this strategic change would be that the United States, and possibly Japan as well, will be in a comfortable position to exercise its security commitments to South Korea. There are suspicions, however, raised against the United States that it will refrain from actively exercising those promises of extended deterrence once it is completely immune from potential nuclear and missile attacks. This decoupling of security interests can be avoided by equipping ourselves with THAAD. Not only would South Korea have a stronger missile defense capability of its own, South Korea will be connected to the pan-East Asia missile defense network and keep the United States involved. It would increase South Korea’s strategic value for the United States and establish South Korea’s role as a trusted and equal US partner.

A similar deficit exists between South Korea and Japan as well. As of now, the United States and Japan form the East Asia missile defense network, with possible participation from Australia in the foreseeable future. Under current settings, South Korea lacks measures to influence any decision made by the United States and Japan in the case of a rocket or missile launch from North Korean territory towards a target area initially unknown. A worst-case scenario would be North Korea deploying nuclear warheads on a missile to target cities and military bases in South Korea but regional missile defense system not being deployed in a timely manner because of Japanese objections to using assets located in Japan. Such a scenario was not largely considered until the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that the USFJ marines need Japanese consent to move into the Korean Peninsula theater for military operations while answering to a question at the budget committee of the House of Councilors. While Prime Minister Abe’s answer can be understood as a technical statement rather than a description of how the Japanese government would actually behave in a crisis situation, South Korea should seriously take into account the possibility of this unfavorable circumstance being realized. Close cooperation and coordination between South Korea and the US missile defense system through the deployment of THAAD is the fail-safe way to ensure the system reacts to asymmetric military provocations from North Korea. Moreover, proactive ROK participation can work as a check on Japanese military developments regarding missile and space capabilities, and thus contain a potential regional arms race among the regional powers.

Conclusion

South Korea cannot help but consider the China factor when it comes to strategic decisions, as the economic relationship will be a given factor for a long time into the future. But a healthy relationship that benefits both sides cannot be established when only one partner shows concern for the other but not vice versa. While South Korea thinks of its rising neighbor, China should also pay attention to the security of South Korea if it is to truly become a strategic partner in the long term. More than that, it is time for South Korea to become clear on missile defense and cross the red line. If the system is what we need to reinforce our defense posture against North Korean military threat, the government and military should do their utmost to appeal to the rational side of our public and overcome emotional anxieties. Delay and ambiguity cannot serve South Korea’s national security interests. Rather, they will bring about more confusion and problems. When North Korea’s asymmetric capabilities are outpacing the speed of ROK defense build-up, we cannot afford to delay.

The above writers, both Mr. Choi Kang and Mr. Kim Gi-Bum work for Center for Foreign Policy and National Security.




 

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