Why South Korea Needs THAAD Missile Defense

May 4, 2015


The April 2015 interim nuclear agreement with Iran generated speculation that a similar agreement may be possible with North Korea. However, Pyongyang has made emphatically clear that it will never abandon its nuclear arsenal and declared the Six Party Talks negotiations “null and void.” Kim Jong-un and all major senior government entities have vowed to maintain North Korea’s nuclear weapons, even amending the constitution to forever enshrine North Korea as a nuclear nation. North Korea has an extensive ballistic missile force that can strike South Korea, Japan, and U.S. military bases in Asia. Enough unclassified evidence is available to conclude that the regime has likely achieved warhead miniaturization, the ability to place nuclear weapons on its No Dong medium-range ballistic missiles, and can currently threaten Japan and South Korea with nuclear weapons.

Therefore, the U.S. and its allies need to deploy sufficient defenses against the growing North Korean missile and nuclear threats. To deter and defend against ballistic missile attacks, the United States, South Korea, and Japan need a comprehensive, integrated, multilayered ballistic missile defense (BMD) system capable of multiple attempts at intercepting incoming missiles at various phases. Having multiple systems providing complementary capabilities improves the likelihood of successful defense against missile attack.

Seoul’s Strategic Ambiguity

Yet, despite this growing threat, South Korea insists on exposing its citizens to a greater threat than necessary. Seoul resists procuring more effective interceptors, resulting in smaller protected zones, gaps of coverage so fewer citizens are protected, and minimal time to intercept a missile, all of which contribute to a greater potential for catastrophic failure. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) would be more effective than existing South Korean systems to defend military forces, population centers, and critical targets at a higher altitude over a larger area with more reaction time than existing systems in South Korea.

Even the U.S. deployment of THAAD BMD to better protect American troops on the Korean Peninsula has been controversial due to Chinese pressure on Seoul. The Park Geun-hye Administration pursues a policy of “strategic ambiguity” in order to postpone public discussion on THAAD deployment.

South Korean presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook described Seoul’s position as three ‘no’s’ – “no [U.S. deployment] request, no consultation, and no decision.” But a February 2015 Joongang Ilbo poll showed that 56 percent of respondents favored deployment of THAAD.

Missile defense is most effective when systems are integrated into a seamless and cohesive network. Integrating South Korean, U.S., and Japanese sensors would enable more accurate interceptions by tracking attacking missiles from multiple angles and multiple points throughout the flight trajectory. Yet South Korea resists integrating its system into a more comprehensive allied network due to lingering historic animosities with Japan.

In 2014, South Korea advocated delaying the planned transfer of wartime operational control of its military forces because it felt insufficiently prepared to defend itself against North Korean attacks. Postponing the OP-CON transfer ensured maintaining a combined allied deterrent and defense effort. It would be illogical for Seoul to prefer going it alone on missile defense rather than availing itself of better interceptors and a more comprehensive allied BMD network…

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