Bad idea for South Korea

By Wu Riqiang, October 3, 2014

US missile defenses serve the interests of US allies well—this is what Liviu Horovitz argued in Round One. Horivitz's argument might be valid for his own nation of Romania and for other countries in Europe. But it is not the case in the Asia-Pacific region and it is certainly not the case for South Korea.

The Asia-Pacific Phased Adaptive Approach, which Tatiana Anichkina discussed in Round One, is a regional missile defense system that the United States envisions creating in Asia. The system would be established through two sets of trilateral dialogues—one involving the United States, Japan, and Australia and the other involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The potential involvement of South Korea is a matter of high concern to China. Admittedly, South Korea is an excellent site for missile defense radars intended to monitor North Korean missile launches, but South Korea is also next door to China. Installation of US missile defenses there would intensify Chinese suspicions that Washington's true intentions are to neutralize Beijing's nuclear deterrent.

South Korea is reluctant to integrate its own missile defense system, known as Korean Air and Missile Defense, into a US global missile defense system. Seoul has pledged to make its own missile defenses more interoperable with those of the United States, but so far it is sticking to its decision not to join the Asia-Pacific Phased Adaptive Approach. This is partly because of Seoul's residual tensions with Tokyo about Japan's wartime history but partly because of Chinese sensitivities about US missile defense. South Korea's paramount interest is stability on the Korean Peninsula; China plays a key role on the peninsula. South Korea would provoke China if it joined a US ballistic missile defense program. That would represent a poor choice. Nonetheless, the United States continues to pressure South Korea to do just that.

In June, the commander of US forces in South Korea recommended that a US missile defense technology known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense be deployed in South Korea. Ahead of the recommendation, the United States had surveyed sites where the system might be deployed. But deployment of this system would pose a threat to Beijing's conventional and nuclear missiles—and would harm relations between China and South Korea.

In any event, the putative rationale behind US missile defense in Asia is a North Korean missile threat, but that threat has often been overestimated. In 1998, for example, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States maintained that "emerging ballistic missile powers" such as North Korea and Iran were capable of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles "within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability." Sixteen years later, this appears a serious exaggeration. In June of this year Dean Wilkening, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said this: "[E]ither you conclude that North Korea did not have an intent to build [intercontinental ballistic missiles], or it's more difficult than people were led to believe. I think it's the latter."

Yes, North Korea has successfully launched a satellite. But Pyongyang must overcome serious challenges before it can use an intercontinental ballistic missile to deliver a nuclear weapon. First, it needs to build a rocket engine more powerful than its current Scud-based engines. Second, it must develop workable reentry vehicles. These vehicles' performance cannot be tested on the ground or in space launches; they must be verified through flight tests. Third, North Korea needs to produce a nuclear bomb small enough to deliver with an intercontinental ballistic missile. This means that the international community must prevent North Korea from testing more powerful rocket engines, flight-testing reentry vehicles, and carrying out additional nuclear tests. Preventing these activities won't be easy, and it will require the international community to cooperate closely. China could play an important role in the international effort—but Beijing's incentives for cooperation will decrease if the United States deploys missile defenses over China's objections.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons