ITHACA, NEW YORK – The much-touted Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile battery is being hastily set up in South Korea ahead of schedule, presumably in reaction to North Korea’s provocations, but also in fear of it being subject to cancelation by a possibly less pro-U.S. administration that will take over the reins of power in the wake of the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye.
While the desire to “do” something about North Korea is urgent and palpable, the devil is in the details when it comes to figuring out what to do.
The THADD missile emplacement is of dubious utility and is doubly controversial; it offers little protection to its supposed beneficiary while greatly exasperating relations with China, a key to any long-term solution with Pyongyang.
The utility of defensive missiles cannot be dismissed offhand, especially in the case of Japan, which is at sufficient remove to improve the odds of interception. The long arc of a missile crossing the expanse of the Sea of Japan, for example, might offer time and distance sufficient to target incoming strikes. But this is not the case with South Korea, which is way too close to North Korea for effective anti-missile missile defense. What’s more, field tests, even under relatively ideal conditions, have been riddled with failure.
Beijing is not wrong to assume that the underlying motivation of the controversial missile placement is both prod and shield to China itself. Although the kinetic missiles — designed to knock out incoming fire by deadweight collision — are not offensive weapons, the radar monitoring necessary to identify incoming objects is intrusive and could easily be reconfigured to focus on China. The upgraded AN/TPY-2 radar system can “look” 2,000 km over the horizon.
Perhaps U.S. strategists saw a chance to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the kinetic missile battery is a public relations ploy to show a U.S. administration being tough on North Korea, a “bring it on” taunt to notoriously thin-skinned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But it is also a prod to get China to do its share of the heavy lifting on the intractable Pyongyang problem. To install the missiles despite China’s hysterical opposition is precisely the sort of diplomatic gaffe that Trump revels in, because it leaves room to negotiate.
It’s a Trumpian bargaining point: If Beijing doesn’t get its erstwhile ally under control, Washington will double down on doing it its own way, in a way designed to bug China.
There’s not much art to such a deal but the current occupant of the White House favors a careless, obstreperous style, as was already seen in his indelicate flourishing of the Taiwan card in the face of the long-held “one-China” policy.
The plan to install missiles in the rugged mountains that down the Korean Peninsula like a spine predates the Trump presidency, but it has acquired Trumpian overtones, and not just because the deal involved a real estate swap and the sale of a golf course.
To put an advanced missile battery in South Korea is like flourishing a blade at Pyongyang that is also a feint at Beijing.
Just as North Korea is been used as a proxy target for anti-China sentiment, South Korea is likewise being used as a substitute target for anti-U.S. sentiment.
The recent upsurge of anti-South Korea agitation in China can be seen as a frustrated and misplaced attempt to castigate the U.S. missile program by blaming the recipients of Uncle Sam’s largesse. South Koreans, long regarded in China as U.S. “running dogs” (or “the cat’s paw” as China Daily delicately puts it) are being unfairly blamed for a Pentagon-devised move.
Narrowing the focus even more, Lotte, a wealthy South Korean conglomerate with roots in Japan, has been singled out for particular abuse in China, if only because it ceded control of the golf course where the missile battery is now being installed. Thus the company has become a proxy for a proxy.
The Korean Peninsula has long been a land in between. Caught in a tug-of-war of great power wrangling as World War II wound down and the Cold War revved up, colonized Korea, not aggressor Japan, got split in two. Had the Soviet Red Army turned its attention to Japan sooner, a not entirely implausible alternative would have seen the division of Japan, determined by a race to Tokyo that paralleled the race to Berlin.
With the Russians poised to hit Hokkaido and north Honshu, the Americans, working up from Okinawa and the islands would have been limited to occupying Kyushu, Shikoku and Kansai, with a DMZ running near Tokyo.
Luckily for Japan, that’s a counterfactual that never happened, and all things being equal, it was probably better for Japan to be occupied from top to bottom by dollar-rich Americans rather than be “shared” with ruble-poor Soviets, but tragically for Japan, and humankind in general, the rush to occupy was a contributing factor to a ruthless bureaucratic mood in Washington that favored a pre-emptive show of nuclear prowess. As a result, Japan got nuked and Korea got cut right down the middle.
And a revivified Cold War rages on.
If the U.S. has miscalculated in its anti-missile military outreach, China has made a mess of things with its anti-South Korean propaganda. It has scored a soft power own-goal by fanning the flames of racial enmity against ordinary South Korean citizens when the real villains are hidden away in the high towers and hidden corridors of capitals where Cold War thinking is enjoying a resurgence.
Extending the costly anti-missile program to South Korea is a hard sell strategically, but all strategic considerations aside, such sales are a boondoggle for a U.S. military industrial complex that has long raked in cash from spurious Star Wars style anti-missile schemes despite their questionable worth.
It’s not that China doesn’t have an argument about THAAD, it’s that the argument is not with the South Korean people. If it’s with anyone, it’s with Trump, under whose militant posture the provocative installation is taking place.
If China’s leadership wants to address the root of the problem, it makes more sense to boycott Mar-A-Lago than Lotte.
Philip J. Cunningham is a media researcher and consultant.
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