17 March 2015
SEOUL, South Korea — Tension between Seoul and Beijing over Washington’s desire to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in South Korea intensified on Tuesday as South Korea made an unusual public retort to China, asking it not to meddle in its defense policy.
In recent months, the United States has made it increasingly clear that it wants South Korea to install the American missile defense system, known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad. The Americans call it a needed deterrent against North Korea, which has been developing its ballistic missile technology.
At the same time, Beijing has put pressure on Seoul to refuse the American request, arguing that the real target of the system is China.
“A neighboring country can have its own opinion on the possible deployment of the Thaad system here by the U.S. forces in South Korea,” Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said during a regular news briefing on Tuesday, without referring to China by name. “But it should not try to influence our security policy.”
South Korea considers the United States, which still keeps 28,500 troops in the country decades after the Korean War, to be its most important ally. But its growing economic dependence on China — its leading export market — has required an increasingly tricky balancing act. That was apparent this week, as envoys from both countries visited South Korea with opposing demands about the missile defense system.
Mr. Kim’s remarks Tuesday were in response to comments Monday by Liu Jianchao, a Chinese assistant foreign minister, who said he had had “a very candid and free dialogue” with South Korean officials about the issue.
“We hope that China’s concerns and worries will be respected,” Mr. Liu told reporters in Seoul, where his comments were widely interpreted as a sign that Beijing was trying to use its economic influence to pull the country away from Washington.
On Tuesday, a visiting American envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel R. Russel, said it was for South Korea to decide “what measures it will take in its own alliance defense and when.” But he added that the United States military had “a responsibility to consider systems” that can protect the Americans and their ally from North Korean missile threats.
The Thaad system is designed to detect the launching of an enemy ballistic missile at an early stage and intercept and destroy it at a high altitude. In the past, South Korea has maintained that it would rely on American-designed Patriot interceptors to deal with missile threats from the North, while developing its own system.
But the more advanced American system has gained support among South Korean military planners, amid concern that the North is getting closer to its goal of arming missiles with nuclear warheads.
“We will make a decision if the U.S. government asks for consultation, and we will make that decision based upon our national security interests and military benefits,” Mr. Kim said in his remarks Tuesday, adding that Seoul had no intention of purchasing the missile defense system but might allow the United States to deploy it in South Korea.
In a statement last week, the United States military acknowledged for the first time that it had conducted “informal studies” to find suitable locations for a Thaad unit in South Korea.
Although Washington has insisted that such a deployment would be aimed solely at dealing with threats from North Korea, China worries that the system would help the United States military extend its radar sensor capabilities deeper into its territory and compromise its own strategic deterrent.
South Korean analysts said that Seoul’s caution on the issue reflected its growing sense of being squeezed between its traditional ally and its biggest trading partner. “For South Korea, the U.S. deployment of the Thaad is a rose it wants to pick,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “But roses have thorns.”
Officials and government-affiliated scholars
from China have been explicit and aggressive
about the issue in unofficial talks with their
South Korean counterparts, essentially saying
that it is time for Seoul to choose between
Beijing and Washington, according to
participants in some recent meetings.