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16 Feb. 2021
Nuclear Powers in the Korean Peninsula: the THAAD Deployment in South Korea
The formation of the Chinese-North Korean alliance and the American-South Korean alliance made the Korean peninsula a place of great military tension and armaments. The assurance of mutual nuclear destruction has kept both sides from using nuclear weapons ever since the Korean war. Such a dangerous arrangement created a need for defensive weapons against nuclear threats. To fit such a need, the American military developed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Its development was revolutionary as it is capable of intercepting nuclear missiles, allowing the U.S. government to protect population centers and military assets from nuclear threats. In this paper, we will explore why the power struggle of two major powers, China and America, has necessitated yet also delayed the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.
In order to understand today’s political setting, it is essential to discuss the origin of their alliances. In 1950, during the Cold War, North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union) invaded South Korea over the 38th parallel. Although the Soviet Union did not send their own troops to the war, they did provide military strategies for the invasion and military resources for North Korea. In fact, at the time North Korea was a puppet state of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the North Korean invasion of South Korea was against the national interest of the United States as their policy for the communism threat of the Soviet Union was containment, limiting its spread and sphere of influence. President Truman even wrote a declaration three years prior to the invasion named the Truman doctrine; It stated that America would not allow the spread of communism to continue, which started the Cold War. Therefore, president Truman joined the war and aided South Korea, noting the failures of the League of Nations to act against German invasions into Manchuria and Ethiopia leading to World War II. Although UN aid was significant, the majority of foreign aid to South Korea was that of the United States (Gauhar 2010). Initially, South Korea and American forces were able to conquer almost the entirety of the Korean peninsula.
China, however, did not want to share a direct land border with South Korea as they believed it to be an American puppet state. They also feared the allies may continue to advance further North into mainland China. To secure their national interest, they allied with North Korea, pushing back the South Korean and American forces. After the Chinese involvement, general Douglas MacArthur requested a nuclear weapon to be used, but president Truman rejected the request as he feared an all out global nuclear war (the Korean war was during the cold war after all). At the end of the war, the original border of South Korea on the 38th parallel was restored. Although America —as China suspected— was undoubtedly tempted to build South Korea as a puppet state which would delegitimize their aid, they allowed South Korea to become an independent country because they believed South Korea was far more valuable as an independent ally than a rebellious colony (Gauhar 2010). In order to suppress and limit the threat of the South Korean-American alliance, however, China continued its alliance with North Korea to this day.
Today, the alliance between South Korea and the United States has continued to work against their mutual threat: North Korea. The mere existence of the United States military bases in South Korea deters North Korea from initiating an all-out war. Although in theory, North Korea could easily invade South Korea with their nuclear arsenal, the South Korean-American alliance assures them mutual nuclear destruction if they were to do so. Such dangerous nature of mutual nuclear destruction created a demand for defensive nuclear weapons. To fit such demand, Lockheed Martin (an American weapons manufacturing company) produced the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in 1996. It was capable of intercepting short and mid range nuclear missiles within 1000 kilometers with 100% accuracy, according to the Lockheed Martin company (Isdp 2017). It quickly became an invaluable asset to the U.S. military as it can protect population centers and military assets from nuclear threats.
Provoked by North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in December of 2015, the South Korean government began discussing the 2014 American proposal of THAAD deployment in South Korea. Such delay in even an official discussion was, in no small part, due to fears of Chinese retaliations against it. In 2016 the South Korean President Park, who was later impeached in 2017 due to her corruption scandal, accepted the American proposal and deployed THAAD in South Korea. As a response to the THAAD deployment, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test a day after the announcement of the deployment. After Park’s impeachment, president Moon Jae-in had campaigned to restrict further deployment of THAAD during the 2017 presidential election, but he later threatened its development if North Korea conducted yet another nuclear missile test. The subsequent nuclear test later in 2017 forced president Moon Jae-in to declare THAAD as an invaluable asset for national security and temporarily deployed additional units of THAAD in South Korea. Although the development of THAAD went against his campaign promises, later a 2017 Gallup poll indicated that 72 percent of respondents supported his decision (Isdp 2017).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the development and the deployment of THAAD in South Korea has provoked China as it was seen as an effort to limit China’s influence and power in the Korean Peninsula. To elaborate, the deployment of THAAD will increase South Korea’s commitment and dependency on their alliance with America, increasing American influence on Chinese western fronts. Furthermore, China argues that the THAAD can be used to spy and monitor missile testing on their mainland, or even intercept Chinese missiles eliminating the assurance of mutual destruction that the Chinese nuclear weapons pose against South Korea. Although THAAD is able to intercept missiles fired from the north of South Korea, including Chinese missiles as it will follow a similar trajectory from the North Korean missiles, it is not capable of intercepting from the west of South Korea where the majority of Chinese military bases are located. Also, the 1000km range of THAAD is not capable of spying in mainland China. A Pentagon report, however, did indicate that the THAAD placed in South Korea can be altered only in eight hours, increasing its range from 1,000km to 3,000km (Isdp 2017). After such alteration, the South Korean THAAD will be able to detect and monitor Chinese missile activities throughout its territory. In retaliation against the THAAD deployment in South Korea, the Chinese government unofficially placed economic sanctions against South Korea (Isdp 2017). They prevented tourist groups from visiting South Korea and restricted the sale and development of the car and the entertainment industries. Lotte, a South Korean multi-industry company that provided the land for the THAAD deployment, has been heavily targeted by the Chinese government. Seventy-five Lotte stores in China were closed due to governmental inspection failures (Isdp 2017).
Throughout Korean history, the assurance of mutual destruction has prevented a nuclear war ever since the beginning of the Korean war. Such a dangerous system in place can have devastating consequences, and it necessitated the development of a defensive measure against nuclear weapons. Therefore, the THAAD is an invaluable asset for Korean and American national security as it is a defensive weapon against North Korean nuclear threats. Unfortunately, its deployment in South Korea, due to Chinese opposition and retaliation, has initially created a controversy in South Korea of whether its drawbacks outweigh its benefits. After North Korea’s continuous nuclear tests, the significant majority of the population in South Korea believes that the economic sacrifice of Chinese retaliation is insignificant compared to the benefits of THAAD for their national security.
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Isdp. “THAAD on the Korean Peninsula.” Institute for Security and Development Policy, 9 Oct. 2017, isdp.eu/publication/korea-thaad/
Watts, Robert C. “‘ROCKETS’ RED GLARE': Why Does China Oppose THAAD in South Korea, and What Does It Mean for U.S. Policy?” Naval War College Review, vol. 71, no. 2, 2018, pp. 79–108. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26607047.
Mullany, Gerry, and Michael R. Gordon. “U.S. Starts Deploying Thaad Antimissile System in South Korea, After North’s Tests.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/world/asia/north-korea-thaad-missile-defense-us-china.html.