South Korea Eyes US Missile Defense System And Stokes Fear In China

South Korea Eyes US Missile Defense System And Stokes Fear In China
AP/ 達志影像

What you need to know

As North Korean missile threats expand, South Korea is pushing for deployment of a US high-altitude air defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). The push, however, has stoked fear in China, which believes deployment of the system could help the US to expand its military power in the region.

Compiled by Bing-sheng Lee

On February 7, Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket carrying what it claimed to be a satellite, drawing renewed international condemnation just weeks after it carried out a nuclear test. Under UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from firing any kind of ballistic missile.

The US and Japan have already announced plans for new sanctions over North Korea’s recent nuclear test and rocket launch, and the UN Security Council is likely to deliver more soon.

China has also shown its support for the sanctions on Pyongyang. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui has pledged support for a strong resolution at the UN Security Council to punish Pyongyang after its rocket launch and nuclear test. “We support a new and strong resolution,” Zhang says.

In the wake of actions taken against North Korea, South Korea is pushing for deployment on its soil of a US high-altitude air defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), as North Korean missile threats increase. THAAD could be deployed in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, an area proximal to Seoul and a US military base.

THAAD, an anti-missile system, is able to work against ballistic missiles at a higher altitude. As the term “terminal” indicates, it’s supposed to take out ballistic missiles as they start to descend on their targets from on high.

“THAAD is designed to intercept missiles at an altitude of 40 to 150 kilometers using a hit-to-kill approach. That means there are double chances to shoot down incoming missiles,” says Kim Dae-young, a research member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum, a Seoul-based private defense think tank. “Combining the THAAD with the country’s low-tier missile defense network is expected to create a synergy effect in enhancing deterrence against the North.”

But THAAD is going to be very costly for South Korea. Operating a single THAAD unit is estimated to cost about US$ 1.6 billion. One unit consists of six truck-mounted launchers, 49 interceptors, a fire control and communications unit, and an high-tech radar.

On February 16, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said that Pyongyang’s actions show it does not want peace. She pledged to take strong measures against the country over its nuclear program, while addressing the National Assembly.

In the meantime, the US military command in South Korea said that an air defense battery unit from Fort Bliss, Texas, has been conducting ballistic missile training using the Patriot system at Osan Air Base near Seoul.

Thomas Vandal, commander of the US Eighth Army, said, “Exercises like this ensure we are always ready to defend against an attack from North Korea.”

“North Korea’s continued development of ballistic missiles against the expressed will of the international community requires the alliance to maintain effective and ready ballistic missile defenses,” he said in a statement.

China Shows Discomfort about THAAD

South Korea’s push for THAAD has stoked fears in China, which believes deployment of the system could help the US to expand its military power in the region.

Zhang states that China opposes the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. He made the remarks after meeting his South Korean counterpart Lim Sungnam at the Seventh South Korea-China Strategic Dialogue.

The talks were held one day after China’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope for an easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula against the backdrop of a sensitive and complex situation.

According to Yoon Sukjoon, a retired navy captain and a senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, the range of THAAD will extend beyond the Korean Peninsula and effectively cover China entirely.

Hong Lei, spokesman of China’s Foreign Ministry, says that China will continue to steadfastly promote denuclearization of the peninsula and is committed to solving the issue through dialogue and negotiation.

South Korea Closing Down Kaesong Industrial Park

Following Pyongyang’s provocative moves, Seoul ordered the closure of the jointly run Kaesong industrial park, a manufacturing complex just inside North Korea.

On February 11, the South Korean Unification Ministry said that 280 workers who had been stationed at the Kaesong industrial complex had crossed the military demarcation line and were back on South Korean soil.

Electric power to Kaesong, which had been provided by South Korea, has also been cut, along with its water supply.

Kaesong, where more than 120 South Korean companies employed more than 54,000 North Koreans, was an easy source of income for the North. Instead of paying the workers directly, money went to the North Korean government, which had funneled most of the money into its weapons programs. Last year, the government paid only a fraction of US$120 million it got from the industrial park to the workers, South Korea says.

The Star reports, shutting the park will be painful for Pyongyang, but it will not cripple it. North Korea is a deeply impoverished country, with little industry and, because of sanctions, little trade with any nation but China.

North Korean exports to China are estimated to be 20 times higher than what it earned from industrial park. So unless China goes along with significant new sanctions, North Korea will be able to absorb Kaesong’s closure and keep its economy hobbling along.

Edited by Olivia Yang

“China ‘must prepare for war over North Korea’s rocket launch and nuclear tests’” (South China Morning Post)
“Thaad talk: Is North Korea’s ‘missile threat’ really about China?” (Asia Times)
“China issues warning against THAAD in South Korea” (United Press International)
“US, South Korea to discuss THAAD deployment” (
“South Korea Eyes THAAD Despite China’s Fear” (Defense News)
“Facing new sanction threats, North Koreans defiant as ever” (Yahoo News)
“The problem with cracking down on North Korea” (The Star)
“US deploys more Patriot missiles in South Korea following North’s nuclear test” (The Guardian)
“South Korean workers leave Kaesong industrial park” (CNN)