By Kim Tae-woo
Professor at Konyang University and former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being fired during an exercise in 2013. / Wikipedia
On July 8, the South Korean Defense Ministry agreed to deploy the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on the Korean Peninsula.
China’s response was strong and immediate. It protested the move publicly, and also lodged formal complaints with the ambassadors of South Korea and the US.
North Korea was also furious, saying that it the deployment is “tantamount to a proclamation of war and a major act of crime that could never be forgiven.”
Meanwhile, Russia took the opportunity to side with China, even suggesting the possibility of military response from Moscow.
It wasn’t surprising to see North Korea -- the country whose actions triggered the deployment decision -- issuing such inflammatory proclamations.
But the reaction from China and Russia was not just disappointing; it borders on abusive.
Each is fully aware that the anti-missile program is not targeted at either of them. THAAD is viewed as one of the few defense systems that can protect the South Korean public that is exposed to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Of course, China’s concerns, kept at a reasonable level, are understandable.
Beijing is struggling to topple Washington in the global hierarchy, while Washington, on the other hand, is anxious to maintain the status quo.
In a similar vein, China and Russia have forged a makeshift alliance to keep the US-Japan alliance in check and complete the neo-Cold War framework.
So from China’s viewpoint, THAAD is a bargaining chip for leveraging its assets against the US.
Russia, on the other hand, is hoping to use the anti-missile system to cement its strategic ties with China and augment its regional authority.
But these intentions are insufficient to justify their attacks on South Korea’s part latest attempt at self-defense.
Beijing, for one, should ask itself what it has done so far to keep North Korea at bay before Seoul and Washington reached its latest decision on THAAD.
The message that China has been emitting regarding Pyongyang has been conflicting at most.
On the one hand, it insists it would never endorse a nuclear North Korea. On the other, it warns international society that North Korea and the Kim Jong-un regime should not be made to feel jeopardized.
Clearly, Pyongyang took advantage of this stance to continue on a path of nuclear development.
We must also remember that when South Korea depended on China’s partnership, such as during the security crises involving the Cheonan warship that was torpedoed by the North Korean military and the Yeonpyeongdo provocations, Beijing failed to step up to the plate.
And now, China appears to be aiming to thwart Korea’s efforts to beef up its defense against Pyongyang that previously centered mainly on the Korea Air and Missile Defense System, and in the process reinforce its alliance with the US.
What if Beijing became a target for North Korea’s nuclear threats? How would China reacted? Would it not have sought similar means as Seoul, and more?
Of course, the South Korean government must do its best to communicate why THAAD is so critical, and why it can never compromise the security of China or Russia.
But if these two nations continue to diregard Seoul’s logic and apply unnecessary pressure -- actions that border on diplomatic disrespect -- Seoul may have to take extreme countermeasures.
Technically-speaking, THAAD is a half-full glass of water for South Korea. It is a security boost, but at the same time, it could never be capable of seamlessly defending the South against the North’s provocations. Despite this, even a half-full glass of water is welcomed by those who are dying of thirst.
Another reason THAAD must happen is because it is being positioned to protect the US armed forces in South Korea. And these troops are here to help defend South Korea, as a part of the allied forces. THAAD is therefore critical in maintaining the alliance between Seoul and Washington, a major instrument for securing the South Korean peninsula.
Given these reasons, not only neighbors like China and Russia, but the South Korean public and political sector must all wholeheartedly support the THAAD deployment.