When it comes to resolving conflicts with China over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system, South Korea appears to have little elbow room.
Chinese President Xi Jinping received a visit by South Korea’s special envoy Lee Hae-chan on Friday and expressed his hope for an early resolution of the conflict on the basis of mutual respect.
Xi did not mention opposition to the THAAD and the possibility of revoking economic retaliation, but there have been signs that China has been retaliating less fiercely since President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated.
The positive signs are welcome but it should be noted that they reflect China’s expectation that South Korea will change its position on THAAD. They should be seen as pressure on Seoul to take corresponding measures on the deployment of the system.
But China should acknowledge the security reality of the South and the inevitability of the THAAD deployment.
The missile shield is indispensable to South Korea under the escalating threats from North Korea. The North fired a ballistic missile Sunday, a week after launching an intermediate-range missile. It was the eighth one it fired this year, and flew 500 kilometers. Experts say it is becoming more and more difficult to intercept North Korea’s missiles even with THAAD, as they are being upgraded.
Demand to choose between China or THAAD will go nowhere in resolving conflicts over the system. It will only further entangle the problem.
An exit from conflicts should not be an either-or choice. It would be wise to find a third option or a compromise. Easing China’s concerns about what it sees as a threat to its security may be a good place to start. If technically possible, adjusting the range of the radar would be an option. Beijing has argued the radar range is long enough to spy on its territory.
It is questionable whether the parliamentary ratification the Moon administration is seeking for the system will be enough to convince China or the US of its result. There are controversies over whether the installation of a US military asset to protect American troops is a matter that needs to be ratified.
Conflicts over the missile shield are more of a diplomatic issue rather than a ratification problem. The two sides need a flexible stance with a long perspective to settle their differences.
As suggested by Chung Eui-yong, the new chief of the National Security Office, close communications with China are crucial in seeking a way out of conflict. Sincere dialogue is the first step to find as much common ground as possible.
The Moon administration should seek a point of compromise while driving home the gravity of North Korea’s threats and the indispensability of the system.
The worst-case scenario would be that China misreads South Korea’s efforts to resolve THAAD conflicts as a sign showing that the South will do as China intends only if it keeps pressuring Seoul. The South should take caution not to send the wrong signals. They will only make the situation worse.
A ruling party lawmaker’s recent remark on the THAAD issue was reckless in that view. “The THAAD deployment demands the parliamentary ratification. If any part of the matter did not go through legal procedures, withdrawing the system should be considered,” Woo Won-sik, floor leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, said in a radio interview.
It was his own opinion, not the official position of the party, but his remark may send a misleading signal that the Moon administration is likely to seek to remove the system from South Korea.
Politicians and government officials should be discreet and thoughtful in speaking about security matters.
The THAAD issue requires the South to consider many factors, including the usefulness of the system, North Korea’s threats, its alliance with the US and relationship with China. In order to normalize ties with China, the Moon government should focus on seeking a compromise that reflects the elements.