South Korea unlikely to gain US missile defense system, for now

December 11, 2015

Placement of a U.S. mobile missile defense system in South Korea remains unlikely in the near term despite continued concern about North Korea’s nuclear program, analysts and government officials say.

Top U.S. military officials want the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, ready to deploy in the Asia-Pacific region on a permanent basis — and its bases in South Korea are ideally where they need to be to counter a possible North Korean offensive.

Last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said the Pentagon had conducted site surveys for THAAD within South Korea. However, what makes sense from a military tactical standpoint doesn’t always correspond with how leaders view the strategic and diplomatic consequences.

When rumors spread in March of a deal to deploy THAAD to South Korea in an emergency, China decried the possibility as a threat to its security, with Russia voicing opposition as well.

That left South Korea uncomfortably positioned in a dispute pitting China and Russia on one side and the United States and Japan on the other, said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

The result was that despite discussions between President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye earlier this year, along with high-level ministerial talks between both nations, neither side has confirmed ever having had formal talks about THAAD.

Seoul’s caution in regard to THAAD also comes from concern over harming its recently stabilized relations with Pyongyang, Kim said.

The Koreas have technically remained at war since 1953, so everything is relative when it comes to measuring stability. But recent cross-border family reunions and a series of official talks that began in November — the most recent took place Friday at a North Korean border town, according to The Associated Press — aren’t something the South wants to jeopardize, Kim said.

“The situation is now considerably better than it was last spring,” Kim said. “It would be making a fool of ourselves to [deploy THAAD].”

If North Korea carries out another nuclear test, as it occasionally threatens to do through its propaganda channels, that could always cause South Korea to re-evaluate its needs for THAAD, Kim added.

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