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(News Focus) THAAD feuds portend escalating geopolitical tension in Northeast Asia

2017/03/07 17:54

SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- The deployment of the high-tech U.S. missile defense system in South Korea would be a prelude to a major geopolitical shakeup in Northeast Asia, which would pit an enhanced miliary cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo against an increasingly assertive China, experts said Tuesday.

South Korea's Ministry of National Defense and the U.S. Forces Korea announced earlier in the day that they have brought in the first elements of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery. The allies said the advanced missile shield would be ready for operation as early as April.

Seoul and Washington have emphasized the deployment is a defensive move to intercept North Korea's potential nuclear missile attacks, but analysts said it carries more significant geopolitical implications.

"What China protests against, in fact, is not THAAD per se. The country knows the deployment wouldn't make much difference on the military capability front," Choi Kang, vice head of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies said.

"What they resist in fact is the symbolism the deployment has, which is the trilateral military ties among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan will be intensified," Choi noted.

China has escalated its retaliation on South Korean businesses and entertainment since last week as Seoul and Washington showed signs of speeding up the deployment.

South Korean retail giant Lotte Group's Chinese business bore the brunt of China's revengeful boycott as the group allowed the military to use the group's golf course in the southern county of Seongju for the THAAD deployment.

Last week, China's travel ministry also virtually banned Chinese tour agencies from selling tour packages to South Korea, dealing a blow to the South Korean tour industry heavily dependent on Chinese travelers.

South Korea maintains that the country is justified enough to have the THAAD deployed in order to install multi-layer anti-missile defense in the face of North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threats. South Korean and U.S. officials said such threats pose a direct menace to South Korea as well as the U.S. territories.

In 2016 alone, North Korea conducted the last two of the country's five nuclear tests and carried out its first successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test, followed by a successful test-launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile last month.

The recent progress signified "a huge advance" for North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, former senior U.S. State Department official on the North Korean nuclear issue Robert Einhorn said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.

"It gives them the ability to conduct the first strike without the possibility that their attack can be pre-empted by us," he said, adding that the North is on track to eventually attain its own nuclear deterrence by developing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The North Korea threat provided the momentum for Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to vow a tighter-than-ever joint defense and deterrence against Pyongyang, drawing dread from China which pursues a preponderant position in regional geopolitics.

Choi said China's failing North Korea policy has thwarted the country into a dilemma when the country badly needs the collaboration of North Korea to pit itself against the tightening trilateral security cooperation among the U.S. and its two Asian allies.

"With a wayward North Korea continuing military provocations in defiance, China cannot accommodate the North due to potential damage on its global image as well as other external costs," according to the high-rank researcher.

Other experts said U.S. Department State Secretary Rex Tillerson's upcoming three-nation visit in the region as well as South Korea's possible administration change following President Park Geun-hye's impeachment in December may be critical moments to shed light on the geopolitical reshaping of the region.

pbr@yna.co.kr

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