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[Focus] Korea, China agree to disagree on THAAD

 After months of a diplomatic spat, South Korea and China are finally in a mood to patch things up. But their detente cleverly circumvents the main point of their contention -- THAAD -- leaving many to wonder what will happen to the US missile defense system in South Korea that China has so strongly opposed.

Seoul and Beijing said Tuesday they agreed to talk through military channels about the disputed deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system here.

While there appeared to be no major shift from the sides’ previous positions -- China reiterated its opposition to THAAD as Seoul insisted the system is for defense only -- the agreement would at least serve to prevent the security issue from harming decadeslong bilateral economic cooperation.

“(The agreement) is the outcome of the efforts to reflect both sides’ positions and interest in a balanced manner,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said during a press briefing Tuesday. “Specific measures will take place and communication through military channels will be followed.”

Chinese National flag. Yonhap
Chinese National flag. Yonhap

Seoul’s defense officials said although there were currently no official working-level military dialogue between Seoul and Beijing, they would soon re-establish bilateral channels. Both sides’ defense ministries have held military talks almost annually since 1995, but they have been halted since January last year.

Boosting the mood for a thaw was last week’s talk between South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus held in the Philippines. It was the first bilateral meeting in two years between defense chiefs of the two countries.

Among the expected agenda items would be how to employ THAAD’s powerful X-band radar, which China fears would look deep into the Chinese territory. Installed at a THAAD battery at the southern city of Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, the radar is suspected to have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers.

Now that South Korea and China have at least pledged to restore knotty relations following THAAD disputes, analyst noted two countries could move beyond security disputes and enhance economic ties, although there were something left to be desired.

“Both sides chose an exit strategy that can save the other’s face,” said Shin Jung-seung, former South Korean ambassador to China, who now serves as a director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

According to the agreement, South Korea said they “acknowledge” China’s position and concern over THAAD and reiterated that the missile shield is solely aimed at the North Korean missile threat and does not clash with China’s security interest.

China, for its part, reiterated its opposition toward the THAAD deployment, claiming that the powerful radar system can spy into its territory. They expressed their hopes that Seoul can resolve the issue properly and discuss it through a military channel.

Particularly, the agreement gave Beijing reassurance that Seoul would not join a US-led missile defense system or deploy more THAAD batteries, which had already been expressed in public by Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa during the parliamentary audit Monday.

“Through the agreement, they created a diplomatic space where they can negotiate a deal and improve bilateral relations,” said Kim Han-kwon, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “Admittedly, there could be some parts we could have done better, but I think it was the most viable choice.”

Some of those parts left to be desired, analysts noted, are the lack of explicit languages and clauses designed to lift China’s retaliatory measures over the THAAD deployment against South Korean companies operating there.

Following South Korea’s decision to station a US battery in Seongju last year, its retail industry has taken a hard hit in sales, particularly among those who rely heavily on the Chinese consumers such as duty-free as well as cosmetic sectors.

During the bilateral negotiation, China was said to have reiterated that there was nothing for them to do to suspend retaliatory measures, saying they were not official measures taken by the government, but expression of public anger toward THAAD.

“Even China’s expression of regret over its petty retaliatory measure was not included in the agreement,” said Park Byung-kwang, a professor at the Institute for National Security Strategy, who studies Northeast Asia relations. “We should have ensured it would never happen again.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (

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