The Background, Controversy, and Implications of the THAAD missile system deployment in S. Korea

July 26, 2017

by Elan Zohar, Brentwood School Senior / Korea Times Student Intern Reporter

THAAD Missile System

THAAD Missile System

With the successful North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4, the threat of a nuclear North Korea is one step closer to becoming a reality. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un declared the missile test was an Independence Day “gift” to the Americans, as quoted by a North Korean news agency. This test comes amidst the deployment of the United States-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, in South Korea, which has recently stirred up much controversy.

The THAAD system, currently located in the Osan Air Base just south of Seoul, has been deployed solely due to the rise in technology and frequency of North Korean missile tests. The reason for North Korea‘s rush to create a working intercontinental missile is so a nuclear warhead could be attached, therefore creating a relationship with its adversaries of mutually assured destruction. This way, if there were to be an attack or invasion of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un would be able to cause mass destruction in return. The completion of a capable nuclear missile will guarantee the dictator safety and independence, as no country would attempt to attack North Korea in fear of its own safety.

There have been 17 North Korean missile tests in 2017 alone, which is on pace to be more than any other year in the hermit kingdom’s history. Causing more concern has been the July 4 test of the Hwasong-14, the first successful North Korean test of an ICBM. While North Korea claims it can reach anywhere in the world, analysts say that it cannot hit the mainland United States. Even so, Alaska and Hawaii are likely in range of the Hwasong-14. As a result, Hawaii has begun an educational campaign to inform its residents if an attack eventually does occur, and Alaska has installed additional defense systems. These procedures are still extremely preliminary, and the United States still considers the North Korean threat to its homeland to be nascent.

The country more presently at risk is North Korea‘s southern neighbor. Under former President Park Geun-Hye in July 2016, the South Korean government made a deal to purchase the THAAD system from American aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin. The THAAD system is a technologically advanced missile defense system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range missiles in their terminal stage, when the missile re-enters the atmosphere on its way down to earth. Following the ousting of Park’s conservative leadership, newly elected and more liberal President Moon Jae-In has been an opponent of implementing the American defense system. Despite his administration‘s opposition, South Korea did announce that they still plan to follow through with Park’s agreement from last year. Two THAAD missile launchers in the form of trucks arrived at the Osan Air Base in March of this year, but according to a Pentagon spokesman, the US is still pushing to deploy a full battery – a total of six missile deploying trucks – in order to assure safety against a North Korean attack. The only thing stopping this further deployment is Moon‘s administration.

Following the beginning of his term in May, the left-leaning president announced that the system’s environmental impact would be examined before any more would be ordered. South Korean and American Conservatives in opposition call this an attempt to significantly slow down or even halt the program, as Moon‘s decision caused the initial deployment date for the rest of the battery to be postponed until 2018 at the earliest. While there has been controversy as to whether Moon’s decision was made purely for environmental reasons, there is one thing we know for sure: additional THAAD shipments will not be arriving at Osan this year.

Another, often overlooked opponent of the THAAD system has been China. China fears that the missile defense system could interfere with their military expansion into the South China Sea, a region that they, despite US opposition, lay claim to. In March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang remarked, “Our position on THAAD is very clear. We are firmly opposed to the deployment of THAAD.” The Chinese government has lashed out against South Korea economically, a move especially significant since China is South Korea‘s largest trading partner. Not only has the Chinese government sanctioned boycotts of Korean goods, but it has also forced multiple large Korean retail facilities to close down. Additionally, Beijing has implemented a travel ban that disallows transportation to Korea, a hot-spot for Chinese vacationers. “So much for China working with us,” stated United States President Donald Trump in a tweet. “We had to give it a try!”

Tension with both North Korea and China could expedite military preparations and cooperation between the United States and South Korea. It is important to note that the USS Gerald Ford was recently commissioned by Donald Trump on July 22. This new $13 billion aircraft carrier is by far the most technologically advanced in the world, and could be sent out to patrol the waters near the Korean Peninsula. Trump, in a possible attempt to foreshadow a push for more influence in Asia, declared in his commissioning speech: “Everyone will know that America is coming, and America is coming strong.”

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