(News Focus) Worsening N. Korean threats prompt Seoul to deploy THAAD, risk fraying China ties
By Park Boram
SEOUL, July 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's decision to deploy the U.S.'s high-tech anti-ballistic missile defense system shows the country's changing views on the security challenges it is facing amid the ever-evolving ballistic missile threats posed by North Korea, observers said Friday.
They pointed out policymakers are seemingly placing greater emphasis on countering the North's threats even at the risk of fraying the country's ties with its No. 1 trading partner, China.
South Korea and the United States earlier in the day announced that the countries have agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interception system in the Northeast Asian country in order to upgrade the military allies' defense against North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities.
The announcement put an end to the period of ambiguity South Korea maintained over whether it would actually allow the deployment of the controversial U.S. defense system due to China's clear opposition.
Defense Ministry's deputy minister for policy Yoo Je-seung (R) and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal announce their countries' joint decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in Korea during a press conference on July 8, 2016. (Yonhap)
South Korea and the U.S. had long toyed with the idea of deploying THAAD in the country, but it was first officially mentioned by former U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti in comments during a local breakfast function in June 2014 that the defense system is needed to better protect the South from North Korea's advancing threats.
South Korea was quick to deny rumors following the comment that the deployment was under consideration and then kept a low profile, neither confirming nor denying the possibility that it was considering the missile system.
However, this changed in early 2016 when North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test and fired off a long-range missile, which many military experts viewed as Pyongyang's attempt to test its intercontinental missile technology aimed at targeting the United States.
Only hours after the missile test in February, South Korea and the U.S. officially announced that they would start negotiations on whether to actually deploy the THAAD system.
"North Korea's nuclear test and multiple ballistic missile test launches, including recent intermediate ballistic missile launches, are posing grave threats to the security and stability of South Korea and the Asia-Pacific region," South Korea's Ministry of National Defense said as it announced the deployment decision.
The allies will seek to deploy and start operations of one THAAD battery in South Korea at least by the end of 2017, it also said.
The decision is a slap in the face for China which has voiced unusually scathing opposition since last year.
China's Ambassador to Seoul Qiu Guohong warned if THAAD is deployed in South Korea it "could destroy (Seoul-Beijing) bilateral relations in an instant" during his meeting with main opposition party leaders in late February.
Within one hour of South Korea's deployment announcement, China's foreign ministry again expressed "strong discontent and firm opposition," and even summoned Seoul's ambassador to make known its views.
China's concern lies with the THAAD system's advanced X-Band radar component, which they claim could spy on its key military facilities and ballistic missile launch attempts.
Both China and Russia are feeling jittery since THAAD is one of the main components of the U.S. missile defense system that Washington has been pushing for. Beijing fears the missile system is the first step towards South Korea joining the expanded U.S. defense system.
Mindful of possible diplomatic rows with China, the biggest trading partner by far, South Korea made it clear in its announcement that THAAD, when deployed here, will target no other nations except North Korea and will be used exclusively to deal with North Korea's nuclear and missile intimidation.
Experts, however, said the latest decision is sure to erode the prized bilateral relations between South Korea and China after South Korea has put so much effort into building them up over the years.
"We are going down a path which will make it difficult to discuss the big picture with China on issues pertaining to the unification of the Korean Peninsula and the security of Northeast Asia," said Kim Heung-kyu, the head of the China Policy Institute at Ajou University.
South Korea may be able to reduce the fallout a bit by seeking closer economic cooperation deals with China, he noted.
Still, China could use its intertwined economic relations with South Korea to get revenge, some experts predict, citing China's export ban of rare earth resources to Japan in a territory dispute in 2012. Also, two years ago China stopped importing salmon from Norway after the Scandinavian country awarded a Nobel Peace Prize to an activist critical of China's political system.
"It's too early to judge anything," a government official said of the possible economic backlash. "It's not desirable to link the two (THAAD and economic) issues," he said, asking not to be named.