28 July 2014
The Case Against South Korea's Participation in US-led Missile Defense
By Cheong Wooksik
Director of Peace Network


1. Introduction

Does South Korea have to join the US-led missile defense (hereinafter MD) program? What are the gains and losses from South Korea’s participation in the MD? If the losses from MD participation are much greater than the gains, what are the alternatives? In this essay I seek to explore answers to these three questions.

In fact, MD has unique historical, actual, and strategic contexts which differentiate MD from other weapons. MD has been a keyword not only during the Cold War era, but in today’s international politics as well. Except for a nuke, MD may be the only weapon which has been in the spotlight for such a long time. Moreover, MD is the core issue in great-power politics. Especially in the East Asian region, there is a conflict between the US-Japan alliance accelerating the US-led MD building and Sino-Russia cooperative partnership against it.

At the center of the conflict lies the Korean Peninsula. The northern part of the peninsula has been rationale for the MD building, while the southern part has been subject to Washington’s persuasion to win it over to MD. In other words, it is in the MD system where a dynamics of the peninsula’s division is best reflected.

The core problem of MD can only be fully understood when aforementioned factors are comprehensively taken into consideration. What we must go beyond is the boundaries of one-dimensional questions such as "how can we defend against the North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missiles?"

2. Does South Korea have to join the US-led MD?

To begin with, let us examine the first question. Ever since the United States officially requested that South Korea participate in its missile defense program in 1999, the four South Korean governments have maintained a consistent position. That position can be summed up as, "we have no intention of joining US-led MD." However, behind that constant stance is the hidden truth that South Korea has already been undergoing a deep assimilation to MD.

During the Kim Dae-jung administration, a Combined and Joint Theater Missile Operations Cell (CJTMOC) was created as an organ to conduct combined ROK-US theater missile defense operations. Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration the US deployed the latest Patriot missile system (PAC-3) alongside mobile early warning radars called Joint Tactical Ground Station in the Osan and Kunsan Air Bases. These moves made during the Kim-Roh era were an outcome of the US taking advantage of its superior position in the alliance rather than a willing act of the ROK. Furthermore, the decisions to adopt Aegis vessels and Patriot and to construct the Jeju military base were also made during this era; both of the decisions, regardless of their intention, provided necessary hardware for MD.

Under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, these moves are gaining momentum. Four measures were taken in the Lee Myung-bak presidency. First, 2008 saw the creation of an official ROK-US bilateral consultative body on MD negotiations. Second, an extended deterrence committee was created with MD cooperation as its key agenda. Third, maritime ballistic missile tracking exercises named Pacific Dragon began not just between the US and South Korea but also with Japan. Lastly, there was bilateral agreement on expanding the scope of MD cooperation from the Korean Peninsula to Japan, Okinawa and Guam. This was a result of accepting the US argument that in case of emergency these regions belong to a single integrated theater of operations.

Notable moves were made since President Park Geun-hye came to office. To start with, the General Security of Military Information Agreement between South Korea and Japan, which was previously tabled for having been arranged in secret to avoid public scrutiny during the Lee presidency, is now being pushed ahead as a ROK-US-Japan trilateral memorandum of understanding. Also, the decision to purchase PAC-3 was finalized with some in the ROK military circles arguing for the deployment of THAAD and SM-3 systems designed for interception at higher altitudes. Worthy of further note is the agreement in the 2013 and 2014 South Korea-US summits to improve MD interoperability. Moreover, the US already dispatches SM-3-equipped aegis vessels in the vicinity of South Korea frequently, and is considering THAAD deployment as well. With regard to this, the Park administration is showing a favorable attitude, saying that "there is no problem because it will be deployed within the 'US military bases' in Korea."

3. Ministry of National Defense: Bold-face liar

In spite of such facts, the Ministry of National Defense (Hereinafter MND) still denies Korea’s participation in or assimilation into the US-led MD programs. With regard to this, I would like to raise four questions. First, if the US’s MD is deployed to Korean territory, is it Korea’s participation in the MD? Second, if Korea detects and traces someone’s ballistic missile launch and shares the relevant information with the US and Japan, is it not MD related? Third, is an increasing interoperability between KMD (Korean Model MD) and the US's MD not at all related to Korea’s participation in the US-led MD? Fourth, does the fact that Korea has trilateral MD talks and a joint military exercise with the US and Japan have nothing to do with the US-led MD?

Parts of the US’s MD are now deployed in Korea. ROK-US-Japan trilateral intelligence sharing is also in progress. KMD-MD interoperability is decided to be enhanced at a summit, while DTT and a joint military exercise are also being held. All of these clearly demonstrate that South Korea is a typical MD participant country. In fact, the United States also categorizes Korea as a typical example of a country cooperating with its MD. Still, the MND is adamantly denying the truth. Even though it becomes more and more evident that South Korea is participating in the MD program, it, with illogical statements, keeps on refuting that South Korea is a US-led MD participant, referring to assimilation into the US-led MD as a KAMD building. This irrationality may come from the intention to circumvent domestic criticism and opposition of China. However, it is obvious that the MND’s excuse is a bold-face lie. From now on, let us see how illogical the MND’s explanation is.

Firstly, the MND insisted that "there is no linkage at all" between MD and the ROK-US-Japan trilateral intelligence sharing pact. In other words, while the US and Japan are pleading with South Korea to jointly build a MD system, Seoul is rejecting their plea. Should the MND’s explanation be true, then there is no reason for the US and Japan to persuade and pressure South Korea into signing the intelligence sharing pact. Above all, the goal of trilateral talks is to share the information required to detect and trace the North’s ballistic missile. Given that the success of the MD relies on detection and trace of other countries’ missile launch, what South Korea is participating in, if not MD?

The MND’s explanation continued. "A North Korean ballistic missile launched toward continental United States flies in the direction of the North Pole, not ROK airspace, and no weapons system can intercept such a missile from South Korea, (hence) it does not follow that the ROK will become a part of US-led MD program." However, let us reconstruct the MND’s remarks as the following: "ballistic missile launched by North Korea or other countries toward the mainland of Japan, Okinawa, Guam, and Hawaii flies not in the direction near to the North Pole, but ROK airspace or its adjacent area, and there is no weapons system which can intercept such a missile in South Korea, but in the US or Japan. Though Korea may not shoot down the missile, relevant intelligence can be provided to the US and Japan. (Hence) it does follow that the ROK will become a part of US-led MD program."

The MND’s logic is like the following; first it identifies the US-led MD with the Pentagon’s attempt to defend CONUS, and then, it emphasizes that South Korea does not possess advanced weapons to intercept ICBM heading for CONUS, and that ICBM’s flight trajectory does not include Korean airspace, thus it is implausible that South Korea is not participating in the US-led MD program. Yet, except for the US, there is no country on the earth in which interceptor missiles for CONUS defense are deployed. Although the George W. Bush administration once attempted to locate GBI in Poland, the plan was nullified during the Obama administration. In other words, according to the logic of the MND, there is no participant country in the US-led MD program in the world.

The US divides MD into two different categories, depending on the defending objects; one is GMD which is for defending CONUS, while the other is "regional MD" which aims at defending the US troops dispatched overseas and the US allies. What the US requires of South Korea is participation in the "regional MD". In short, whereas the Pentagon is requesting participation in the "regional MD", the MND is referring to the "GMD" as evidence of its unwillingness to participate in the MD.

Besides, what the US and Japan rather want from South Korea is to join their regional MD program by sharing intelligence on missile launches. The US and Japan will be "very grateful" should South Korea equips herself with a THAAD or SM-3, and intercepts the ballistic missiles flying toward Japan or Guam. Yet, if this is unlikely to happen in any time soon, they may be satisfied with Seoul’s sharing intelligence concerning missile launch with them.

"There are a lot of ways that South Korea could contribute to U.S. missile defense in Northeast Asia. That doesn't have to be proactive defense itself or certainly active participation through the use of missiles. One possibility involved contributing through radar." said the US Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in September, 2012.

ROK aegis vessels are currently equipped with SPY-1 radar, which is able to detect and trace ballistic missiles. Besides, South Korea is the US ally located nearest to the DPRK and PRC, which respectively constitute explicit and implicit targets of the MD program. This is what the US-Japan alliance wants.

MD is like a monster with outstanding proliferating ability. South Korea’s participation in MD cannot be exceptional. Since May 2014, the US has begun publicly mention her intention to deploy THAAD in South Korea. However, former Defense Minister and the Head of National Security, concurrently, Kim Kwan-jin said in congress in 18, July that he is not concerned about upgrading the US Forces in South Korea. In other words, although the MND does not have a solid plan to purchase the weapon at this point, it will not be a problem if the US Force deploy the weapon on Korean soil.

PAC-3, which is the newest version of Patriot, is already deployed in South Korea. South Korea will further be considered a typical participant country in the US-led MD program when THAAD, in addition to PAC-3, is also introduced, given that it will be the sole country where THAAD is dispatched, other than the US itself.

4. What are the losses from South Korea’s participation in the MD?

Next, let me explain why I oppose South Korea’s participation in the US-led missile defense program. Yet, before I start, I would like to clarify something; there is a bias that if one is opposed to the MD, he/she is often accused of underestimating the danger of the nuclear weapons and missiles of North Korea. Yet, this is not the case. In effect, not only is the MD not an effective defense system, but also it only worsens the defense dilemma. In other words, I am concerned about MD since it can only backfire.

This is evident when we examine the reasons for the United States’ Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the former Soviet Union in 1972. Although the treaty was repealed when the George W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew, the treaty while it lasted was lauded as a cornerstone of international peace and stability over three decades. Strategic stability, the core principle of the ABM treaty, consists of two pillars, first of which is to suppress an arms race and the second; crisis management. Missile defense, meanwhile, exacerbates competition in the development of offensive and defensive weapons, and precipitates mutual distrust, all the while making crisis management difficult in times of escalation. This is the very reason why the US and the USSR, even while they were strengthening their nuclear capacity which can annihilate their counterpart, checked the MD building.

Then, why should South Korea not participate in the MD? Will missile defense teach Pyongyang of the futility of nuclear missiles, prompting them to give up on them? Has there been such a case in human history? It is said that the past is a mirror of the future. When the Reagan administration proposed the strategic defense initiative, satirized as "Star Wars", the USSR responded by upping its nuclear stockpile and developing even more bizarre missile technologies. China is also considering a variety of responses to US missile defense, albeit to a lesser degree than the former Soviet Union. Just what is the rationale behind the belief that North Korea will be an exception? Is it not more likely that Pyongyang would rather build more nuclear weapons and missiles in larger varieties while employing its tactics of concealment and deception in responding to the trilateral missile defense?

North Korea sees the US-led MD as a part of preemptive strike strategies. As ROK-US-Japan trilateral movement for the MD accelerates, Pyongyang keeps on saying that "[MD is] a treacherous military provocation which aims at preemptive nuclear attack on the republic" and that (it will, in response to this,) reinforce nuclear deterrence. Moreover, they are not limited to political rhetoric, but take actual measures. North Korea launched a projectile which is thought to be 300mm multiple rockets in 26, June and 2, July. Since the projectiles are not missiles but shells, it is impossible to intercept them in midair through MD. To make matters worse, some people propose the analysis that Pyongyang is going to load nuclear warheads with the multiple rockets as well as ballistic missiles. In addition, the North again launched two ballistic missiles which is believed to be a type of Scud with a range of 500km in 29, June. Because Scud's flying altitude is so low that it is unrealistic to respond to it with THAAD whose interception altitude is 40-150km or SM-3 whose is even higher than THAAD. In this context, the fact that North Korea criticized THAAD deployment and launched the Scuds can be interpreted as her armed protest which aimed at showing Pyongyang’s possession of diverse means against the MD.

The MD can also be a significant burden to the Sino-ROK relations. China regards South Korea’s participation in the MD as the final threshold of Sino-South Korea relations. Why? The worry that missile defense would further impair the ability to resolve the issue of nuclear North Korea and aggravate the situation on the Korean Peninsula is just one explanation. The Chinese conceive of the US-led MD program as aimed at China. This can be understood when we examine the European situation. On the flipside of the Ukrainian crisis is Russia’s resentment toward NATO’s easterly advance policy promoted by the US with MD programs. Likewise China sees the US rebalancing in Asia as a strategy to contain and blockade, and the US-led missile defense in East Asia as a concrete manifestation thereof.

However South Korea is a US ally located close to the Chinese heartland. Furthermore, the US is in the process of relocating its Yongsan headquarters and 2nd Infantry Division to the Pyeongtaek-Osan area for the sake of strategic flexibility. All of this is being done with the intention of intervening in case of an outbreak of military conflicts in Northeast Asian. Simultaneously in order to defend these installations missile defense systems are being deployed and the ROK is being drawn into the program. China sees American intervention as a question of life or death, whether in case of conflict with Taiwan or Japan. China’s counter-US strategy will differ profoundly according to the presence of a US-led missile defense program. That is why China is not indifferent to South Korea’s participation in missile defense.

One might say that "why does South Korea, a sovereign country, need to be concerned about China?" It is, however, a basic of international politics that one sovereign country’s action should not provoke other countries and should seek a win-win strategy, instead of a zero-sum, in order to promote amicable international relations. Furthermore, the US forces and the MD deployed in South Korea can be used as a counter-China measure in case of emergency by the US. Even the simple possibility that South Korea may be employed as the US force base is unacceptable when Sino-US conflict occurs is a totally unacceptable issue for China.

In addition, should South Korea join the MD program, economic burdens vastly outweigh any improvement in its defense. The introduction of PAC-3, the latest Patriot model, costs more than 1 billion dollars, and a THAAD cannon costs about 2 billion dollars. Meanwhile, the interception rate and the range of defense are quite limited. Moreover, Pyongyang can readily develop a variety of counter-MD measures with relatively marginal expense. In this case, South Korea will fall into a quagmire of an arms race where it should pour more money to strengthen the MD capacity.

Additionally, due to the geographical characteristics of the Korean Peninsula which is mountainous and lacking in spatial depth, the game of "shooting down bullets with bullets" will only have a low probability of success. As revealed during the second Gulf War, it is also plausible that an interceptor missile can be a "friendly fire missile". Furthermore, considering urbanization and population density of capital area, damage by debris is also highly likely, when intercepted. Thoroughly considering all the factors including the deterioration of the North Korean nuclear situation, risking Sino-ROK relations, and the profit-loss imbalance, missile defense is an unworthy endeavor whether chosen voluntarily or under duress. One can point to the benefit of a strengthened South Korea-US alliance, but the alliance is only a means to pursue security and national interest, not an end in itself.

5. What are the alternatives?

Then what are the alternatives? The answer to this question can be borrowed from the wisdom of Reagan and Gorbachev in their peaceful end of the Cold War. The idea that one can become more secure by making others insecure is based on a one-sided "Cold War mentality." That mentality led to tens of thousands more nuclear warheads and fiddling with missile defense, but without providing any added sense of security. The lesson was clear and costly: the quest for absolute security gives rise to absolute anxiety. To the contrary, the post-Cold War paradigm of common security is rooted in the concept that one can only be secure when the other party also feels secure.

The problems of the Korean Peninsula including the threat of North Korea must also be approached under such a mentality. The narrow notion of trying to solve the nuclear problem by rendering North Korea less secure through diplomatic isolation, economic sanction, or military threat can only repeat the failures of similar policies of the past. In this regard, missile defense will only make matters worse for South Korea without bringing any benefits.

Of course deterrents are needed against North Korea, but missile defense exceeds the boundaries of deterrence, and as the saying goes, too much is no better than too little. We need a flexible posture in maintaining firm yet disciplined deterrents, actively engaging in dialogue and negotiation, taking mutual threat reduction measures, and ultimately transitioning from a Korean Peninsula armistice regime into a peace regime.

In truth, missile defense and Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are two monsters that have grown up side-by-side from 1994. The ’94 Agreed Framework between the North and the US was unexpectedly confronted by the Republican Party’s platform of presenting MD as the foremost diplomatic and security policy. The ill-fated relationship suffered further setback in 1998 as the Rumsfeld Commission Report coincided with the North’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile, and the ill fate reached its peak in 2001 with George W. Bush’s election win. The Bush administration needed a pretext to justify missile defense, and North Korea’s timely brandishing of nuclear weapons played right into the hands of the US. Unfortunately that cycle continues into the Obama administration.

What South Korea needs to do is to break the vicious cycle: the vicious cycle that as the danger of North’s nuke escalate, South Korea becomes more dependent on the MD, resulting in more danger of North’s nuke. The answer is closer to us than imagined, which is to cooperate with China to open the way to six-party talks. Arguing that six-party talks are of no use is a sign of ignorance not only to history but also to diplomacy, which is also known as "the art of possibility." Opening the door to six-party talks will allow us to suppress the mutually-reinforcing proliferation of nukes and MD. Once we temporarily freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program, we can also fathom terminating the program once and for all. The best choice for the Peninsula’s defense and interest at this point is not to chase a mirage called MD, but to open six-party talks as soon as possible in order to prevent development and upgrading of the North’s nuclear capacity. The more nuclear materials in the Korean Peninsula, the more dangerous the Peninsula becomes. This is because, as current situation goes on, the North may find a room to develop not only the long/middle/short range ballistic missiles, but also tactical nuclear weapons such as a nuclear warhead for multiple rockets. If the North fully operates Yeongbyun nuclear facility, it can produce 5-10 nuclear weapons every year. This is what we must stop now; this is totally within our capacity.

Moreover the eventual objective of the six-party talks is to forge a peaceful regime not just on the Korean Peninsula but in Northeast Asia. In order to stabilize the Northeast Asian security environment where a rise of China, militarization of Japan, rebalancing strategy of the US, and Ostpolitik of Russia are all mingled, the six-party talks is urgently needed.

*This essay was the added one that was publish in Global Asia(July/August 2014). Daekwon Son and Olly Terry contributed to translation of the added essay. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Korea Office supported writing and translation of the essay.

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