Why Missile Defense for South Korea?

The U.S. THAAD system is not foolproof, but it’s a powerful symbol of support for America’s nervous ally.

A submarine missile is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 15.
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
April 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

Amid rising ten­sions with North Korea, the United States and South Korea agreed this week to move up the timeline to in­stall a con­tro­ver­sial mis­sile-de­fense sys­tem in Seongju. Just how ef­fect­ive that sys­tem will be, however, re­mains in ques­tion.

The U.S. and South Korea hope the Ter­min­al High Alti­tude Area De­fense (THAAD) sys­tem will at the least de­ter Kim Jong-un, who has con­duc­ted a series of mis­sile tests over the last few months, from con­tinu­ing the tests. At best, they hope that THAAD will in­ter­cept all or most me­di­um- or in­ter­me­di­ate-range bal­list­ic mis­siles fired to­wards South Korea. But giv­en THAAD’s lim­ited track re­cord, some mis­sile-de­fense ex­perts are skep­tic­al it will be re­li­able.

“This is one of those areas where the pro­ponents of mis­sile de­fense are 100 per­cent cer­tain that it will work all the time and op­pon­ents are 100 per­cent cer­tain it will nev­er work,” said Gary Sam­ore, who served as the Obama White House’s co­ordin­at­or for arms con­trol and weapons of mass de­struc­tion. “Nobody knows how ef­fect­ive THAAD will be be­cause it hasn’t been ac­tu­ally tested un­der war­time con­di­tions that it would face.”

After fail­ing sev­er­al tests in the 1990s fol­low­ing its launch, THAAD has com­pleted 13 suc­cess­ful mis­sile in­ter­cepts in 13 at­tempts since 2006, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Mis­sile De­fense Agency.

While that’s still an im­press­ive re­cord com­pared to oth­er sys­tems, these tests don’t al­ways tell the full story. They are of­ten con­duc­ted in re­l­at­ively fa­vor­able con­di­tions, and usu­ally in­volve knock­ing down only one or two mis­siles at a time. In fact, THAAD has yet to be tested against more than two bal­list­ic mis­siles, so it’s un­clear how it would hold up if North Korea tried to over­whelm the sys­tem.

“These tests are scrip­ted for suc­cess. They’re not try­ing to cap­ture all the un­cer­tain­ties of ac­tu­al battle,” said Philip Coyle, who was an as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I would be con­cerned that in ac­tu­al com­bat there would be prob­lems that had not yet been cap­tured with THAAD.”

On top of that, the one THAAD bat­tery be­ing in­stalled in South Korea can provide only so much cov­er (THAAD mis­siles have a range of 125 miles and an alti­tude of 93 miles). Based on sim­u­la­tion data, the South Korean news­pa­per Chosun Ilbo re­por­ted in 2015 that while a single THAAD bat­tery could de­fend most of the coun­try from a lim­ited amount of me­di­um-range bal­list­ic mis­siles, it would take three to pro­tect the en­tire coun­try from a full North Korean bar­rage. And THAAD won’t help pro­tect Seoul from an­oth­er ma­jor se­cur­ity threat: short-range ar­til­lery and rock­ets.

Thomas Karako, the dir­ect­or of the Mis­sile De­fense Pro­ject at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies, em­phas­ized that the de­ploy­ment of THAAD is a “ne­ces­sary, but not suf­fi­cient” com­pon­ent of the lar­ger plan to de­fend against North Korean at­tacks. THAAD will work in con­junc­tion with the Pat­ri­ot and Ae­gis de­fense sys­tems, which de­fend against short­er-range and longer-range mis­siles, re­spect­ively.

“I’ve yet to meet the weapons sys­tem that can handle everything,” Karako ad­ded. “It’s not about an im­pen­et­rable shield. It’s about in­tro­du­cing doubt in­to the cal­cu­lus of North Korea and oth­ers that they may not suc­ceed in es­cal­at­ing a con­flict in cer­tain ways.”

In­stalling this THAAD bat­tery, which is pro­jec­ted to cost more than $1 bil­lion, has taken sig­ni­fic­ant time and ef­fort. While the U.S. and South Korea first agreed to de­ploy the in­ter­cept­or in Ju­ly of 2016, the pro­cess didn’t be­gin of­fi­cially be­gin un­til March of this year. Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence and act­ing South Korean Pres­id­ent Hwang Kyo-ahn an­nounced Monday that they would ac­cel­er­ate de­ploy­ment fol­low­ing North Korea’s failed mis­sile test Sunday.

While THAAD’s de­ploy­ment has re­ceived mixed re­views in South Korea, China has been vehe­mently op­posed to it from the start. Chinese of­fi­cials are con­cerned THAAD’s radar could also be used to de­tect mis­siles in their coun­try, not just North Korea, which they be­lieve could jeop­ard­ize their na­tion­al se­cur­ity. China has re­cently re­tali­ated by im­pos­ing un­of­fi­cial eco­nom­ic sanc­tions against South Korea.

James Win­nefeld, a re­tired U.S. Navy ad­mir­al and former vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is con­fid­ent THAAD will be an ef­fect­ive sys­tem not only op­er­a­tion­ally, but sym­bol­ic­ally.

“It un­der­scores our com­mit­ment to South Korea, which sends a sig­nal to the North: We’re still in­ves­ted in this place, we have an al­li­ance with them, and we will ful­fill our ob­lig­a­tions un­der the al­li­ance,” Win­nefeld said.

This is all oc­cur­ring against the back­drop of the next South Korean elec­tion, which takes place May 9. The elec­tion was called after the im­peach­ment of Pres­id­ent Park Geun-hye, who first ne­go­ti­ated THAAD’s de­ploy­ment with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, was held up by the courts last month.

The front-run­ner to re­place her, Demo­crat­ic Party of Korea nom­in­ee Moon Jae-in, has said he would re­view THAAD’s de­ploy­ment if elec­ted, an­oth­er reas­on why the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is rush­ing to in­stall the sys­tem. The oth­er lead­ing can­did­ate in the race, Ahn Che­ol-soo of the People’s Party, said he would abide by the move to de­ploy THAAD, after ini­tially op­pos­ing it.

But re­gard­less of the out­come, it will likely be dif­fi­cult to re­verse THAAD’s de­ploy­ment at this point, both from a prac­tic­al and polit­ic­al stand­point.

“The pres­sures to have mis­sile-de­fense de­ploy­ments like this aren’t go­ing away any­time soon,” Karako said. “The stra­tegic need is not go­ing to change.”

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