U.S. Fast-Tracks Missile Defense System To South Korea, Drawing China's Ire

Mar 9, 2017
Originally published on March 9, 2017 8:16 am

North Korea again tested ballistic missiles this week, firing four of them into the waters near Japan. Just days later, the U.S. military announced that part of a controversial missile defense system arrived at Osan Air Base in South Korea for deployment as early as April.

The system, called THAAD, an acronym for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, has been the source of much controversy in South Korea. Critics say the approval process to install it was rushed, and neighboring China is furious about the deployment. Here's what you need to know:

What's THAAD?

It's an American missile defense system designed to shoot down short and intermediate range missiles in the terminal phase — often described as like shooting a bullet with a bullet. There's currently a system installed on Guam. As North Korea tested ballistic missiles last year, the United States argued that THAAD was increasingly necessary in South Korea.

Seoul's current conservative administration approved it after months of consternation and public hand wringing. It was supposed to be deployed before the end of this year in southern South Korea, on land that is currently a golf course.

But the Chinese are expressing unhappiness. What does it have to do with the Chinese?

The Chinese seem more worried about THAAD's radar system than its missiles. This system has the capability, the Chinese say, to track where China's missile systems are located, giving the U.S. a strategic advantage. China is also questioning if THAAD would be effective against North Korea's short-range missiles, raising the question whether THAAD's primary goal is to contain China. The U.S. has maintained the system is merely defensive.

What is China doing about it?

China's first target has been to hit South Korea economically, putting restrictions on business and shutting down stores owned by the Lotte conglomerate, which agreed to allow THAAD to be built on its golf course. Chinese travel agencies are stopping ticket sales and tour packages to South Korea, and there are calls to boycott South Korean products like K-dramas and K-pop concerts.

Some of this may sound trivial, but China is South Korea's largest trading partner, so this could have a damaging economic impact. Then, earlier this week after THAAD batteries arrived near Seoul, China's foreign ministry said China would take "necessary measures" against it. It's unclear what this means, but according to some military experts, China may be developing technology to blind THAAD's control system, essentially jamming it.

What has the reaction been in South Korea to these measures?

China's retaliation, as South Korea sees it, brought widespread condemnation in the media, and created anxiety among policymakers. Some even called for the country to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Others are calling for more restraint. But it's important to remember that there's been little evidence of a slowdown in trade of manufactured goods between the two countries, which makes up a huge chunk of bilateral commerce.

And South Korea is in a leadership vacuum. The president's already been impeached and could be removed as early as tomorrow. Could this have an impact on the deployment of THAAD?

It might play into why the U.S. abruptly announced this week that it started setting up the THAAD system several months sooner than expected. There's a case to be made that the deployment is being fast-tracked ahead of a new South Korean administration, which could be less accepting of the system. The left-leaning Democratic Party (which is currently out of power) has more members opposed to or skeptical about THAAD deployment. It's also possible the effort is going faster than expected because the defense ministry recently reached a land deal for the system's location — and because North Korea has stepped up its missile tests in recent weeks.

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North Korea's missile tests and the United States' response have stirred debate among North Korea's neighbors. The latest missile shots into the sea were seen as a provocation. And a day later, the United States said it had started deploying new missile defenses. Sounds good, right? Well, the U.S. move is of intense interest in South Korea, where we find NPR's Elise Hu, and an annoyance in China, which is where we find NPR's Rob Schmitz.

Hi, guys.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So, Elise, what does this system do for a U.S. ally like South Korea?

HU: Yeah, it's called THAAD, which is an acronym for a missile defense system designed to shoot down both short- and intermediate-range missiles midair, kind of like shooting a bullet with a bullet.

Now, the U.S. argues that it's purely defensive and - that given North Korea's growing missile program, that THAAD belongs in South Korea. It has always - supposed to be operational before the end of this year.

INSKEEP: OK, well, nobody wants to get hit with a North Korean missile, Rob Schmitz. So why does China care?

SCHMITZ: Well, what the Chinese are worried about is THAAD's radar system. It's a sophisticated radar that could be used to track China's own missile systems hundreds of miles away inside of China. So for China, that's a problem. It doesn't want the U.S. military to know where Chinese missiles are located because it would give the U.S. a major advantage in the event of a conflict with China.

The Chinese are also concerned about THAAD because they believe it wouldn't be very useful against a North Korean strike anyway because it doesn't have the capability to take out North Korea's short-range missiles and artillery that cannot reach high altitude.

So the Chinese are questioning the real reason for THAAD. They're hinting that it will actually be used to track China's missile systems and help contain China.

INSKEEP: Oh, and there's always been debate about just how effective missile defenses are. So China's worried about information that might be gathered here. But what can China do?

SCHMITZ: Well, China's first retaliatory strike has been economic. The THAAD system was deployed on a golf course in South Korea owned by the Lotte conglomerate. And when word got out, China's government shut down 23 of Lotte's 115 stores in China, saying all of them were suddenly in violation of fire codes.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SCHMITZ: So today we heard news that...

INSKEEP: I'm still hung up on the idea of, like, trying to hit my seven iron bended around this missile that's sitting there on the golf course...

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Like a new obstacle. Go on, Rob. Go on. Go on.

SCHMITZ: And so today, there was some more news. Authorities here in Shanghai have shut down a chocolate factory that's a joint venture between Lotte and Hershey, the first American company that's gotten pulled into this. Chinese travel agencies have stopped selling tickets to South Korea. There's been calls to boycott South Korean products, and even K-pop music. So, you know, some of this sounds a little silly, but China is South Korea's largest trading partner. And this threatens to do some damage.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's now harder to hear "Gangnam Style" in China. I get that.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: But, Elise Hu, what does South Korea think about all this?

HU: Well, they are understandably anxious about all of this. This has caused widespread condemnation. And policymakers aren't really sure what to do next. Some have called for Korea to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Others are calling for more restraint. But honestly, how all this plays out for trade between Korea and China is an open question right now, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, just to review, we've got this missile defense system on a golf course. It's owned by a company that's now being penalized inside China. People in South Korea are upset. It's a huge deal. And, Elise, in the middle of this, isn't South Korea about to change presidents possibly?

HU: That's right. So the current president has already been impeached by lawmakers. She finds out whether she's officially removed tomorrow. So despite an original timeline of deploying THAAD sometime this year, the U.S. abruptly announced this week that it already started deploying the THAAD system just days ago. So now it's saying that this THAAD system could be operational by April, several months sooner than expected.

And so there's a case to be made that the deployment is actually being fast-tracked ahead of a new Korean administration. And if that administration is more liberal, it's likely to be opposed to or skeptical about THAAD. But of course, you can also make the case that this effort's going faster than expected because North Korea has certainly stepped up its missile tests in recent weeks.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul. Thanks very much.

HU: You bet.

INSKEEP: And we also heard from NPR's Rob Schmitz. He's in Shanghai. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.