(News Focus) China steps up retaliation on THAAD, S. Korea stuck with few options: experts
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- China has stepped up efforts to hurt South Korea for its decision to allow the stationing of an advanced missile defense system on its soil with punitive measures to likely intensify going forward, experts predicted Wednesday.
The Seoul government, however, seems to have few countermeasures at its disposal, spawning concerns that it could face "costly" consequences if it fails to handle the situation in an effective manner, observers claimed.
On Tuesday, media reports showed that Chinese authorities have refused to approve imports of massive amounts of South Korean cosmetics as they are said to not meet their trade requirements. This was deemed the latest in a series of measures apparently aimed at punishing Seoul for its push to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery within this year.
In July, South Korea and the U.S. jointly announced a plan on the THAAD deployment, drawing strong opposition from China, which voiced concerns that the missile defense system equipped with the strong X-band radar could hurt its strategic security interest.
South Korea's has countered that the THAAD deployment reflects critical national security interests to deal with evolving North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities.
Ever since the decision was announced, Beijing has taken thinly-veiled measures, mostly in business and cultural areas, aimed at pressuring Seoul to scrap its planned THAAD deployment.
Korea pop culture, known as hallyu, has been a major target with top Korean entertainers virtually banned from appearing on Chinese TV shows. More recently, the Chinese government rejected South Korean airlines' plan to operate chartered flights to China ahead of the busy Chinese New Year holiday season.
"It has just begun," said Kim Heung-kyu, political science professor at Ajou University. "On a scale of one to ten measuring China's retaliation, the current level seems to be standing at only three. A full-blown retaliation that could have a real impact on South Korea has not started yet."
"China will likely increase pressure until the date when South Korea and the U.S. complete the THAAD deployment in a wide range of areas and in a way to push Seoul," Kim noted.
Beijing has denied any involvement in such measures, but its Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for South Korea to halt the THAAD deployment during a recent meeting with visiting South Korean lawmakers.
China also seems to be preparing retaliatory plans "in phases" that will be implemented in the months to come, observers speculated.
A former Chinese diplomat said in a seminar held in South Korea in November that China is preparing all necessary measures, including "diplomatic" and "military" responses.
On Monday, around 10 Chinese military planes flew in and out of the Korean air defense identification zone without prior notice, an action some see as the possible start of the military responses that Beijing is preparing.
The timing cannot be worse for South Korea.
It is currently facing a diplomatic situation clouded by an ongoing dispute with Japan over a comfort women statue recently installed in front of consulate in the port city of Busan. It is, moreover, facing the uncertainty of how to cope with the incoming Donald Trump administration and leadership vacuum here caused by parliament's impeachment of the president over an alleged corruption scandal involving her close friend.
Apparently mindful of making things worse and potentially hurting its cherished unified global front against North Korea's nuclear threats, the Seoul government has maintained a "low-profile" against the ever-toughening offensive from Beijing on what its sees as a "sovereignty issue."
In the face of growing complaints from its people that the Chinese are meddling in internal affairs, South Korea recently said that it is preparing "countermeasures" against China's retaliatory steps against THAAD.
"Necessary measures are being discussed in the government," Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters in a recent press meeting. He said that efforts should be made to determine the "exact" reason and nature of actions before preparing such countermeasures.
Experts remain skeptical that the government has any effective options at its disposal. Any counter punitive measures could backfire and there is little chance of bringing this matter to the World Trade Organization due to lack of clear evidence of Beijing's direct involvement, they said.
"There seems to be nothing the government can do right now," said Lee Heui-ok, head of Sungkyun institute of China Studies, a research group under Sungkyunkwan University.
"The government needs to launch a task force consisting of experts in the public and private sectors to start talks with China on this matter as soon as possible. It can't do it alone," he added.
Echoing the view, Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a local research institute, said that the government has little choice but to emphasize the initially-stated rationale behind the THAAD deployment which is to meet North Korean threats.
He called for the government to accelerate its preparations for the THAAD deployment, saying that it can get rid of any possible "window of opportunity" through which China can hold onto the hope of making Seoul change its mind.
"There is no other choice but to emphasize the need for the THAAD deployment. That is to protect us from the North's nuclear and missile threat," he said. "China seems to believe that it can force South Korea to give up its planned installment. This is not something like a business deal where you take this and I take that. This is a sovereign issue and there should be no turning back."
"While persuading China that we need the THAAD for the sake of our own protection, the government should consider speeding up its preparations for its installment to send a strong signal that there is no chance that the plan will be scrapped," he added.