The THAAD Problem

South Korean military drills near the Demilitarized Zone.

THAAD, short for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is one of the most powerful defense systems in the world. Developed primarily by Lockheed Martin and the Unites States, THAAD’s main purpose is to “hit-to-kill’, targeting invading missiles and colliding/exploding them in the air using kinetic energy. It is different from most defensive missiles which explode in the air without hitting the incoming threats, only being able to inflict damage, but not destroying them completely. THAAD provides an extensive range of surveillance, containing Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance, “the largest air-transportable x-band radar in the world”, to detect and target approaching attacks. THAAD is also capable of targeting threats of long distances, being able to reach just outside of the earth’s atmosphere. 

Deployment of THAAD in South Korea started in 2014, when Curtis Scaparrotti, then Commander of U.S. Forces in South Korea, mentioned that the South Korean government had requested the deployment of THAAD. In March 2015, the South Korean government disputed Scaparrotti’s assertion, and stated that they are planning to establish their own independent defensive system. It was after North Korea’s fourth nuclear experiment in January 2016, that Park Geun-hye, the previous president of South Korea, began to consider THAAD. In March 2016, South Korea and the United States established a committee of 10 representatives from each country to oversee the deployment of THAAD. It was in July 2016, that the committee finally chose the plans for the construction of its base. Since then, South Korea has been advertising THAAD not only to be an effective method to protect South Korea from any potential missile attacks from North Korea, but also to strengthen the relationship between South Korea and the Unites States. However, the decision of THAAD’s deployment has been opposed by many, including both the citizens of South Korea and China. 

The main reason why there is such a big disagreement in South Korea is because the discussion was led secretly by the Blue House (South Korean equivalent to the White House). The deployment of THAAD was also led independently by the president, without any recognition of the Senate. While the establishment of THAAD is finalized, confusion only has been increasing more during the past few months. President Trump said in an interview that South Korea will be paying for the expense needed for the construction of THAAD base, unlike what the South Korean government has claimed. 

South Korean government agencies declined to respond to the issue regarding the payment of billion dollars, leaving the citizens in further perplexity. The Blue House later responded that the United States had promised and signed to pay for the expense, but according to the South Korean Senate, there does not exist a specific contract that claims that Unites States will pay. Additionally, while THAAD is going to be operated in South Korea, the Unites States would have complete control over the operation of THADD. While the deployment THAAD was initially arranged for the benefits that it will bring to South Korea’s defense system, it is now unclear whether it is an effective military advantage or just a subject of conflict.

The trouble regarding THAAD not only lies within South Korea, but also outside of the country. Since the deployment of THAAD has been announced, China has been actively posing economic threats to the South Korean economy. While THAAD is not a weapon targeting China, the Chinese government has been aware of its surveillance abilities, which would be able to pick up tracking data of the Chinese military system and contribute to the American ballistic missile defense system. Therefore, the Chinese government has been leading boycotts against Korean products. The government ordered to stop selling tour packages to South Korea and the closing of Lotte, a Korean family-run conglomerate, supermarkets across China. Annually, millions of Chinese tourists enter South Korea for purposes of shopping and sightseeing, contributing a great deal to the South Korean economy. However, the decision of the Chinese government reduced the number of tourists visiting South Korea down to 50% over the past year, leading to a decline of several companies which made profits from Chinese tourists. Hyundai Economic Research Institute proposed a research result on May 3, which claimed that South Korea will experience a loss of 7.5 billion dollars this year due to China’s ‘THAAD revenge’, which marks 0.5% of South Korea’s GDP. It is questionable whether the establishment of THAAD was worth the economical damage and the decline of South Korea’s relationship with China.

On May 10, in South Korea, Moon Jae-in was elected president and will take over the Blue House that was left empty for the past two months after Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. It will be his responsibility to resolve the conflict over THAAD. Stuck between the two strongest nations in the world, China and the Unites States, South Korea face’s a difficult decision. If South Korea chooses to support THAAD’s deployment, China’s revenge will continue, while giving away THAAD’s deployment will result in a damage of trust with South Korea’s biggest ally, the United States. Time will tell which nation South Korea chooses to hold hands with.