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[Newsmaker] Sino-US rivalry puts Seoul on edge

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Published : 2017-03-07 17:38
Updated : 2017-03-07 18:45

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system is a core element of the US’ multilayered missile defense program, designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles at altitudes of 40-150 kilometers during the terminal stage of their flight.

Built chiefly by US defense giant Lockheed Martin, a THAAD battery typically consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 48 interceptors, a fire control and communications unit and an AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar. Before interception, the land-based radar designed by Raytheon detects an incoming projectile at a maximum range of around 1,800 kilometers.
 
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se attends a meeting to discuss countermeasures to China's escalating retaliation to the THAAD system's deployment here and the North Korean missile threat at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Seoul and Washington view the system as helping to better fend off evolving threats from North Korea, which recently fired a new intermediate-range ballistic missile and claims to be in the final phase of tests for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland.

At a forum in Seoul in June 2014, then US Forces Korea commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said THAAD provided a “greater sensor array, better awareness of the threats and added to the interoperability of all of our systems.”

With interoperability being key, the two countries’ militaries say once its deployment is complete, THAAD would create synergy with the existing Patriot systems here and the Korean Air and Missile Defense system. The KAMD is a low-tier, multiple-interception scheme aimed at destroying incoming missiles at altitudes of 40-50 kilometers, and is scheduled to be introduced in the early 2020s.

Since the allies announced their deployment decision last July, debate has been intense over the system’s efficacy relative to its potential repercussions on South Korea’s relations with China.

Beijing has voiced vehement objections to the plan, arguing it constitutes Seoul’s de facto joining of Washington’s global missile defense initiative targeting China.

Other critics question THAAD’s value in safeguarding Seoul and the metropolitan area, as the battery will be installed in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province. With an estimated range of 150-200 kilometers, it cannot cover the capital region -- home to 10 million people -- and possibly also the US military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, some 170 kilometers from Seongju.

Instead, the militaries plan to augment the deployment of the upgraded PAC-3 Patriot systems for capital defense.

However, some opponents say that THAAD will most likely be useless, because in attacking the South, the communist neighbor would rather mobilize weapons put in place along the border, such as multiple rocket launchers or shorter-range missiles, which may inflict greater casualties at a cheaper cost in no time.

Advocates say the THAAD stationing is inescapable because there are few other effective means with which to defend from growing North Korean missile threats, taking issue with what they call pervasive “security insensitivity.”

The ongoing uproar, however, is more rooted in Seoul’s opaque and hastened decision-making process.

Speculation over a possible THAAD deployment had persisted over the past few years, until the allies declared formal consultations shortly after Pyongyang staged its fourth nuclear test and fired another long-range missile in February 2016.

Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the Bareun Party is a trailblazer for THAAD. Yoo, who chaired the parliamentary defense committee from 2008 to 2014, has been calling for Seoul to adopt or even purchase the system since early 2014.

Even after Scaparrotti publicly and repeatedly raised the need for the system -- which observers say had grown out of frustration with Seoul’s eschewal of discussions -- the Park Geun-hye government stuck with its mantra: no consultations between the allies, no request from the US and no decision made.

The backlash has only intensified, both from China and the public at home, since a presidential corruption scandal broke out and the impeachment campaign against Park began.

Many officials and experts resent the current state of affairs, saying Seoul should have made efforts to soothe Beijing in advance rather than making the surprise announcement and insisting on security sovereignty.

“While it is our sovereign decision to protect national security and people’s safety, China would not have been so ferocious had we employed diplomacy, especially when Rep. Yoo stoked the debate, and we did have plenty time to do so,” a Seoul official who was not involved in the process said, referring to Beijing’s economic retaliation.

Another official said, “China, too, is indeed going too far on the retaliation, despite some regrettable moves from our side. Now that the deployment is likely to be completed before we hold a presidential election, I hope after that there would be chances for a new government to mend fences and redefine ties with China.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)