For many, South Korea’s decision to host a missile shield to defend against its hostile northern neighbour should not be controversial.
But in a region riven by simmering historical grievances, Seoul’s move has sparked a bitter furore that shows few signs of abating.
Beijing, angered by what it sees as a US attempt to enhance radar-monitoring of China’s own missile systems, has retaliated against corporate South Korea and banned tour groups to the country. South Korean opposition politicians have demanded the deployment be delayed. Pyongyang has said the platform is part of a pre-emptive attack plot.
At the heart of the controversy is the strategic message that the deployment of the US-operated Terminal High Altitude Area Defence platform, or Thaad, sends to the region, analysts say.
The move underlines Seoul’s preference for military and ideological ties with the US over its economic and historical ties with China, in a show both of Washington’s commitment to the region and Beijing’s failure to pull Seoul out of the American security orbit.
“Thaad is just the beginning. South Korea needs two batteries, radar, Aegis . . . They have to go the whole nine yards like Japan,” said Victor Cha, a White House adviser on North Korea during the George W Bush administration.
The US already operates Thaad units in Guam and Hawaii, as well as powerful radar in Japan and on seaborne units. Japan is also considering hosting a Thaad battery.
“The deployment of Thaad signifies that the country has been sucked into the US-Japan missile defence alliance, which targets not only North Korea but also China,” says Cheong Wook-sik, author of the recently released book All about Thaad.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, warned on Wednesday that Thaad was “the biggest issue affecting China’s relations with the Republic of Korea”.
“The monitoring and early-warning radius of Thaad reaches far beyond the Korean peninsula and undermines China’s strategic security,” he told reporters in Beijing. “Deploying Thaad is clearly a wrong choice. It’s not the way neighbours should behave with each other . . . We strongly advise the ROK not to pursue this course of action. They will only end up hurting themselves as well as others.”
When engaging enemy targets in “fire-control” mode, the Thaad radar’s maximum range is 800km. However, it can see much further when put into “forward base mode” to detect missile launches.
“Although [Seoul] claims the radar will only work under the fire-control mode, nothing would prevent the US from switching to the forward-based mode if it likes and that would greatly extend the radar’s range,” says Zhao Tong, a missile expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Centre, a Beijing based think-tank.
George Nelson Lewis, a physicist and expert on missile defence at Cornell University’s Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, says the range for detecting the launch of a single or few missiles could be as much as 3,000km.
However, he does not think the radar is a major threat to China.
The deployment of Thaad signifies that the country has been sucked into the US-Japan missile defence alliance, which targets not only North Korea but also China
“It could possibly collect some useful information on some of their missile flight tests and might be of minor help if China fired missiles at the US,” he says. “I think it contributes to China feeling that the US is surrounding it with military capabilities.”
Youngshik Bong, a research fellow at Yonsei university who advises the government, says: “South Korea was the only hope for China to break down the trilateral partnership between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. Beijing believes this will be the beginning of a strategic imbalance against China.”
One US official in Seoul adds that “China will oppose anything that reduces its dominance of Asia”.
But the magnitude of Beijing’s opposition has caught Seoul off-guard.
After officials last week announced plans to push ahead with the deployment, Beijing reacted swiftly, banning Chinese tour groups from South Korea. The move followed months of ever-increasing pressure on South Korean interests in China.
First, Seoul’s celebrities found themselves unwelcome, with concerts and television appearances cancelled. Then Beijing turned the screw on corporate South Korea, targeting in particular the operations of Lotte, South Korea’s fifth-biggest conglomerate.
The group had traded the land needed to host Thaad with the Seoul government, an action China openly declared would have “consequences”.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and politicians in Seoul are painfully aware of their dependence on their hulking neighbour. On Tuesday the government acknowledged it was “actively considering” filing a complaint with the WTO over the decision to ban tour groups.
Yet Beijing’s hardline response could backfire. The deployment has been controversial in South Korea from the outset, with opposition politicians complaining that due process has not been followed. The installation would probably have been revisited by a new government following an expected election later this year.
The retaliatory measures by China have had a galvanising effect on the nation, pushing the country further towards the US as well as Japan, with which it has a historically uneasy relationship.
“South Korea has basically flipped the finger at the Chinese and said ‘you can impose non-tariff barriers and stop the tourists but we are going to go forward’, said Mr Cha.
This week the first Thaad components rolled off a C-17 transport aircraft at a US army base 70km south of Seoul, a moment hailed by both US and South Korean military officials.
But lost amid the noise was the fact the platform is unable to protect the 10m inhabitants of Seoul.
South Korean officials intend to host the battery — consisting of six truck-mounted launchers, 48 interceptors and a radar — in the country’s central Seongju county, suggesting its primary purpose is to protect US bases within the missile interceptors’ 200km range.
Its capabilities in protecting the South Korean population are limited. Seoul, the defence ministry told the Financial Times, was “beyond Thaad’s defence coverage”. The effectiveness of Thaad even within the interceptors’ range has also been questioned.
The system intercepts missiles at an altitude between 40km and 150km, rendering it practically useless for dealing with North Korea’s short-range artillery or missiles launched at low angles.
“The effective coverage range of 200km is just a mathematical calculation,” Kim Dong-yup, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University. “I doubt that Thaad would prove effective in thwarting Pyongyang’s missiles.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong