The Corner

National Security & Defense

Understanding the South Korea-China Agreement on Missile Defense

South Korea and China have agreed to settle a dispute regarding the placement of an American-built missile-defense system known as THAAD in southern South Korea, a decision that will have a complex impact on the U.S.’s effort to respond to the North Korea threat.

The dispute stretches back to Febuary 2016, when then-South Korean president Park Geun-hye said she would agree to begin negotiations for the “earliest possible” deployment of the THAAD system – which is designed to counter high-altitude missiles in their terminal stage of flight — to address the growing threat posed by North Korea. (A month earlier, North Korea had conducted its fourth nuclear test). China had been outspoken about its opposition to such a partnership between the U.S. and South Korea since nearly a year earlier, and in March 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping told President Barack Obama that China was “firmly opposed” to THAAD’s placement in South Korea. China’s opposition comes from a dual concern over national security – the range of THAAD’s radar monitoring system reaches across the Chinese border – and a struggle for power in the region between the U.S. and China.

South Korea’s refusal to cancel or move the THAAD system led China to begin exerting economic pressure on the nation, including a recommendation from Beijing urging Chinese travel agencies to cease selling or marketing South Korean vacations, an Internet hack temporarily disabling a duty-free retail website of the Lotte Group – an international retail conglomerate based in South Korea that allowed the South Korean military to use one of its corporate-owned golf courses as the base for THAAD – and an announcement by the Chinese Ruixiang Group that it wouldn’t sell Lotte products. South Korea has resisted these pressures, maintaining that THAAD is an important part of its defense against North Korea and that it won’t reconsider until the threat posed by North Korea decreases substantially.

While the terms of yesterday’s agreement are largely under wraps, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha hinted at part of the resolution with a statement that South Korea will limit its missile-defense expansion to the existing THAAD system and that the nation will not join the U.S. effort to construct a regional system or a formal military alliance with the U.S. and Japan. If that’s the case, then it represents a win of sorts for China and would relieve its concerns that radar monitoring from additional-missile defense systems would in effect surveil Chinese military operations. From the wider perspective of the U.S.’s goal of de-escalating the threat posed by North Korea, however, China’s agreement to allow the existing THAAD unit to remain could signify the nation’s willingness to budge on issues affecting its alliance with North Korea.

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