On Monday, a South Korean official implored Beijing to understand his government’s desire to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, THAAD as the missile-defense system is known.
“I hope to ask China’s understanding of what Korea is feeling about the North Korean threat,” said Shin Beomchul, director general for policy planning of the Foreign Ministry, to an audience in Washington, D.C. “It is not the usual threat, it is a nuclear threat. That’s very serious. We are now in the live-or-die situation.”
To deal with this existential nuclear threat, the occupant of the Blue House has attempted various approaches during her tenure. President Park Geun-hye began her term with the “trustpolitik” policy of building trust with Pyongyang. When that failed, she started to speak of a unified and democratic Korean state.
And, while traveling the road from engagement to unification, her approach and attitude toward China evolved as well. Initially, she worked with China with the hope that Beijing would rein in its North Korean ally. Not surprisingly, given Beijing’s adamant objections, she was reluctant to agree to deploy the US-made THAAD system.
Her China-centric approach took her to Beijing last September for the massive military parade that raised eyebrows across the region—and in Washington—as the head of democratic South Korea stood on the reviewing stand next to an assortment of autocrats and dictators.
To her credit, Park modified her approach when it became painfully evident that Beijing could not—or would not—control North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Now, she is focused on defending the South Korean homeland by negotiating the deployment of the most sophisticated missile defense system her country can buy. And, once again, she looks like an ally of the United States.
The decision to deploy the THAAD missile system will likely be announced soon. Earlier this month in New York at a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said “it’s going to happen,” referring to deployment in South Korea.
Nonetheless, as Shin’s overture indicates, Seoul would like to win China’s approval for THAAD. Likewise, the US has attempted to alleviate Beijing’s concerns by stressing the limited reach of the system’s tracking radar into China. Washington has offered repeatedly to brief China’s officials as well as discuss the system’s technical limitations. For its part, Beijing has refused meetings on the topic, as Mark Lambert, director of the Office of Korean Affairs of the State Department, said Monday.
As the North Korean regime becomes increasingly militarized, nuclearized, and hostile, however, China can hold back the deployment only for so long. Now, for the first time, the American and the South Korean leadership is on the same page with regard to regional missile defense. Therefore, the deployment of THAAD seems inevitable—and not a day too soon.
“We need to defend our own people, we need to defend our own allies, and we are going to do that,” Carter declared this month. And Shin this week agreed, saying that protecting South Korea was his government’s “top priority.”
China has had a veto on the matter for too long and now Americans and South Koreans are approaching the point when they will no longer ask for Beijing’s permission to defend themselves—from a regime China has helped arm.