What Comes After THAAD?
South Korea began receiving Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) hardware ahead of schedule from the United States on Tuesday after North Korea test-fired four missiles toward Japan. THAAD is an anti-missile system to protect South Korea from the nuclear threat it faces from North Korea. Let’s be clear—THAAD will not be in South Korea for long, and the U.S. needs to begin thinking about a longer-term strategy to protect its East Asian allies from a nuclear North Korea.
President Park Gyun-hye’s impeachment has added a degree of uncertainty to the THAAD debate. Many believe that the decision to rush THAAD deployment was an effort to boost approval for Park’s Liberty Party, known for its pro-American stance and hawkishness toward North Korea, before the presidential elections in May. Opposition leaders claimed that the voices of the people had largely been ignored, while others demanded that the issue be discussed in parliament. Assuming most politicians vote along party lines, the proposal would not pass through the National Assembly. Popular support for THAAD has also been fluctuating, falling from 44% in July to 34% in December. Moon Jae-in, the presidential front-runner, has already pledged to review THAAD if elected.
China is also adamantly opposed to THAAD, which it views as a threat to its nuclear deterrence. In February, China began applying intense economic pressure on South Korea by canceling tours for Chinese vistors, forcing South Korean businesses operating in China to close temporarily, and by boycotting major Korean-Japanese duty-free conglomerate Lotte. Estimates suggest that just by banning tours, China will affect 64% of South Korea’s tourism revenue and 0.5% of GDP. China could up the ante by also boycotting South Korean technology and automotive imports, potentially crippling the South Korean economy even more. This is bound to negatively affect popular support for THAAD and increase political pressure to have it removed.
Given THAAD’s high likelihood of failure, the U.S. government has four options available to protect its allies from a nuclear North Korea.
Option One: Give South Korea Nukes
This approach is the geopolitical equivalent of throwing gasoline on an already raging fire. North Korea’s nuclear program is essentially a way of ensuring its survival, and placing an existential threat on its doorstep is unlikely to cause it to stop. On the contrary, there will be a Korean arms race. Plus, if China is reacting so strongly to THAAD, it’s unlikely they would be supportive of nuclear weapons 600 miles from Beijing.
Option Two: Surgical Strike Against North Korea
North Korea is very mountainous, and they have mobile launchers patrolling the country to prevent just that. American troops would likely be unable to neutralize all of the nuclear weapons at once, and a launch would pose an immediate and likely unavertable risk to South Korea and Japan. The Demilitarized Zone would also likely be heavily bombarded by North Korean artillery, putting major urban centers and American troops at risk. Much like the Korean War, China would also likely intervene.
Option Three: Maintain Current Course
This consists of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and “left of launch” cyber-attacks aimed at sabotaging test-launches. While this is diplomatically sound, it has not accomplished the goal of stopping weapons development; it has merely slowed it down. Even with increased Chinese sanctions, North Korea has repeatedly proven its resiliency in funding its nuclear ambitions.
Option Four: Re-Open Diplomatic Channels
The North Korean regime is terrified of being toppled. That’s why it views U.S.-South Korean military drills as “invasion practice,” and why Kim Jong-un executed officials that he viewed as having ties to Beijing. In this light, it is easy to see why they are pursuing nuclear weapons—the heat of a million suns is a pretty darn good deterrent. If the U.S. can recognize this and reassure Kim that there is no threat of an overthrow and offer him a place in the world order, North Korea may not be as belligerent when their missile research is complete.
In his most recent visit to Seoul, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that previous North Korea policy had failed and that all options were being considered. While he has not clarified what those options are, experts have speculated that the new approach will consist of secondary sanctions and possible military action. The proposed secondary sanctions will be aimed at Chinese companies trading with North Korea. Both of these options are bound to anger China, likely resulting in worsened relations at a time of heightened tensions.
Photo: "Border North Korea Border Conference Room" by pontamax (CC0 Public Domain) for Pixabay. Use of this photo is not endorsement from its creator.
Chart: Created by author.