The THAAD madness: The US, China and the two Koreas

Mel Gurtov assesses the geopolitical implications for war and peace in Northeast Asia of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system that the US is seeking to install in South Korea at a time of deep tensions in the region.

THE US decision, supported by the South Korean government, to deploy an antimissile system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) may be one of the most thoughtless strategic moves in a generation. The official US justification is that close-in defence against North Korean missiles is necessary to protect South Korea. But the deployment is having more than a few negative repercussions: an argument in China for increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile; an incentive in North Korea for continuing to develop its long-range missile capability; a deep fissure in China-South Korea relations; a roiling of South Korean politics at a time when its corrupt president has been impeached; and a new source of tension in already fraught Sino-US relations.

Most of these negatives could have been anticipated when THAAD was initially on the drawing board several years ago. Yet they were thrust into the background on the argument that the North Korean missile threat to the continental US was so pressing as to warrant building a defence against it. Never mind that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his colleagues would have to contemplate that a missile attack on South Korea, Japan or the United States would result in a counterattack and the immediate and utter destruction of North Korea's military and political institutions. But US leaders in the last two administrations have preferred to press ahead with missile defence rather than (a) consider the possibility that North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile buildup is intended to deter a US attack; and (b) weigh a new diplomatic overture to the North that might reduce tensions and thus the need for THAAD. Lay the US decision at the door of the 'military-industrial complex' if you will - Lockheed Martin is the manufacturer, and a single THAAD unit costs about $1.6 billion1 - but the fact remains that planning and deployment of THAAD is a decision where the risks and costs far outweigh any benefits.

And those (supposed) benefits are already shrinking. North Korea now has a formidable array of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), and seems close to deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Its latest test, in which four IRBMs were launched into the Sea of Japan, may be just the beginning of a new round of missile testing as the North evidently seeks the ability to overwhelm THAAD and pose a credible threat to neighbouring countries and, in theory, to the US west coast. THAAD may be an improvement over other antiballistic missile (ABM) systems, and it has reportedly passed more tests than it has failed. But time and again it has been shown that ABMs cannot shoot down every missile, which is presumably armed with decoys and penetration aids. And THAAD, according to one expert, is 'useless' against an ICBM.2 The Japanese, who already have an ABM system (PAC-3), can't feel all that much more secure because of THAAD.

Though Kim Jong-un and his generals surely are not suicidal, the new and inexperienced US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has just described Kim as 'not rational'. Most observers of North Korea over the years have considered its strategic thinking every bit rational given its history of seven decades of rule, much of it under attack and/or blockade by the United States, its coalition allies and South Korea. The view of North Korean leaders has always been that their security is under threat and that nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are their best means of defence from threats - from deployment of THAAD to wipe out the North's missile advantage, from the annual large-scale joint US-South Korean exercise known as Foal Eagle that is now underway, from US air and naval power arrayed throughout East Asia, and from nuclear threats such as the 'kinetic options' that Haley referenced. Pyongyang will most likely forge ahead with nuclear and missile development so long as the United States offers no incentives that might incline Kim Jong-un to choose a different route to security.

Meanwhile, the Chinese, who have railed against THAAD for years, may now make their own countermove. Their argument is that THAAD threatens China's strategic situation because of its radar warning system, which may reduce if not neutralise China's ability to respond immediately to an external attack. Beijing has never been persuaded by US arguments that THAAD is solely directed at North Korean missiles. Since China sees THAAD as actually directed at it, Beijing may well respond by expanding its arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles. Launch-on-warning might also become an attractive option for China, a course that would greatly increase the risk of nuclear war.

Another cost of THAAD deployment is the sudden end of the China-South Korea honeymoon. Until recently China was on a roll with South Korea in everything from trade and investment to tourism, entertainment and educational exchange.3 The two countries were officially described as having a 'matured strategic cooperative partnership,' reflected in much more frequent high-level contact between Beijing and Seoul than between Beijing and Pyongyang. THAAD has placed South Korea on China's enemy list: South Korean goods and entertainers are being boycotted, and some Chinese sources are calling for direct political and even military action against South Korea. This rupture bodes ill for Chinese cooperation on UN-authorised sanctions against North Korea as well as for Chinese aspirations to become as important to South Korea as the Americans have traditionally been.4

Deployment of THAAD could not have come at a worse time for South Korea. A constitutional court has just ruled unanimously that President Park Geun-hye must step down in the wake of corruption charges. A new election will be held within 60 days. By then THAAD may be fully deployed as the US rushes to make the system a fait accompli for the next South Korean president. If Moon Jae-in, currently the frontrunner and an admirer of former president Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine policy of greater engagement with the North, is elected, he will face a very difficult decision - whether to insist that THAAD not be made operational and risk angering Washington, or allow it to become operational and anger China and North Korea.

Finally, THAAD adds to the mix of policy differences between China and the US. The Trump administration has thus far shown little interest in and knowledge of East Asian affairs. The president has no legitimate Asia expertise to rely on, and has already made some serious missteps on China. The last thing Trump needs as he deals with 'Russiagate' and numerous domestic challenges is a major dispute with China and an ever-growing strategic problem with North Korea. THAAD worsens his options. Whether Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will come to that conclusion is open to doubt. He too has limited experience in Asia and so far has been invisible in US policymaking.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made an interesting proposal: 'double suspension' to put a brake on the escalating situation. His idea is that the US and South Korea would suspend their joint exercises in return for North Korea's suspension of nuclear and missile tests, and all sides would return to the negotiating table. 'Are both sides prepared for a head-on collision?' he asked.5 Evidently one of them is; Nikki Haley, joined by her South Korean counterpart, dismissed Wang's idea as not being at the right time. Instead, 'I can tell you we're not ruling out anything, and we're considering every option,' Haley said.6 So who here is not being rational?

Constantly talking up the North Korean threat and using it to justify ever more sophisticated and expensive antimissile technologies to defend against it is foolish and self-defeating. Diplomacy with North Korea is much more cost-effective. If Washington were in more experienced hands, it would indefinitely delay full deployment of THAAD or, if requested by a new South Korean president, decide not to operationalise it. Secretary of State Tillerson might, as a result of discussions with South Korean leaders, announce on his current trip to the region (see box on p.35) that future US-South Korea exercises would depend on the security situation on the peninsula - a half-step towards Wang Yi's proposal.

These moves would not resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea or turn around contentious relations with China. But sidelining THAAD would reassure China - it might even provide a bargaining chip to freeze Chinese weapons deployments in the South China Sea. It would certainly remove a volatile issue from South Korean politics at a time of a national leadership crisis. If a new decision on THAAD were accompanied by revival of talks with North Korea, which a Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul is likely to initiate and which the Trump administration should support, it might put a brake on the drift towards confrontation. Unless the Trump administration starts paying attention to THAAD's liabilities, it will face a Cold War-style crisis at the same time that the United States and Europe are in the midst of another Cold War standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

The multiple security issues in Northeast Asia are precisely why a regional multilateral security dialogue mechanism is essential, such as I've suggested previously.7 It would provide a venue for addressing common-security issues such as climate change, public health and economic development in North Korea, sustainable energy, and a peace treaty ending the Korean War guaranteed by the major powers. To be sure, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are worrisome not only for the United States, the two Koreas and China but for all nations in the region: China has a legitimate concern about having its nuclear deterrent compromised by THAAD, and the United States certainly wants strategic stability with China. The United States has a legitimate desire to defend against North Korean missiles that can reach Japanese and South Korean targets and, one day soon, the US west coast. But North Korea has an equally legitimate objective to strengthen its deterrent in the face of US, South Korean, Japanese and now Chinese pressures. And so it goes. Arguing about 'defensive' and 'offensive' weapons is likely to be a non-starter, however, unless some degree of mutual trust can be achieved first. North Korea's arsenal of perhaps 20 nuclear weapons and its formidable missile capability present a much different challenge from a decade ago.

Previous regional diplomacy in Northeast Asia has produced results worth building on. The Six-Party Talks in 2005 and 2007 created a reasonable menu of 'action-for-action' steps, including economic and energy cooperation and normalisation of diplomatic relations as well as denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. A dialogue mechanism can breathe new life into those talks, affording the opportunity to debate rather than fire away and consider small steps to defuse tensions. Absent such a mechanism, we can expect that the North Koreans will proceed with nuclear and missile development, China's appeals to both North and South Korea will fall on deaf ears, and the US-South Korea-Japan alliance will plot ways to pressure North Korea even more intensely rather than restart a dialogue with it.8 The consequences can be explosive.   

Mel Gurtov is Professor of Political Science and International Studies in the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University, and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective. His most recent books are Will This Be China's Century?: A Skeptic's View, Superpower on Crusade: The Bush Doctrine in US Foreign Policy and Global Politics in the Human Interest, all available from Lynne Rienner Publishers ( The above article was first published in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (Vol. 15, Issue 6, 15 March 2017,


1   Jung Sung-Ki, 'South Korea Eyes THAAD Despite China's Fear,' Defense News, 14 February 2016,

2   Jeffrey Lewis, 'Are You Scared About North Korea's Thermonuclear ICBM?', Foreign Policy,

3   In 2015 South Korea was first among sources of Chinese imports and China's fourth largest export market, for a total trade of over $275 billion - slightly below China-Japan trade. Global EDGE, 'China: Trade Statistics',

4   As one analysis put it in 2014, 'Beijing no longer sees the need to choose between the two Koreas, and prevailing sentiment within China increasingly views the South as an asset and the North as a liability determined to frustrate Beijing's policy goals.' Jonathan Pollack, 'The Strategic Meaning of China-ROK Relations: How Far Will the Rapprochement Go, and With What Implications?', Brookings Institution, 29 September 2014,

5   Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, Wang Yi press conference of 8 March 2017 (Chinese text),

6    See

7    Mel Gurtov, 'Averting War in Northeast Asia - A Proposal', The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 10 January 2011,

8    After these words were written, the US military announced on the eve of Tillerson's trip that it was deploying Grey Eagle drones to South Korea for 'intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.' The drones are capable of firing Hellfire missiles, though whether they would be armed with the missiles was not announced. Either way, the move represents a significant escalation of tensions. Julian Borger, 'US to Deploy Missile-Capable Drones Across Border from North Korea,' The Guardian, 14 March 2017, online ed.

Kicking the can down the road: Tillerson in Beijing

JUST when it seemed that the North Korea nuclear issue might cause a US-China collision, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Beijing in March brought a backing away. News reports rather blandly suggested that mutual understanding and professions of friendship were the main outcomes. Chinese President Xi Jinping said all the right things: 'China and the US absolutely can become very good partners in cooperation,' their common interests 'are far greater than their differences,' and 'cooperation is the only correct choice.' Tillerson, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, said: 'The US would like to develop the bilateral relationship with China based on the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation; unceasingly increase US-China mutual understanding; increase US-China consultation and cooperation; and together deal with the challenges they face in international society'.1

Chinese observers seemed to think the visit was a win for China. Tillerson supposedly acknowledged what Obama did not - 'mutual respect' in the spirit of Xi's 2010 proposal for a 'new type of great-power relationship' with the US. To the Chinese, Tillerson accepted equality between the US and China, which they interpret to mean recognition of China's 'core interests' that include Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea islands.2 Some US commentators evidently agree that Tillerson gave away the store, accepting the Chinese worldview while getting nothing in return.3

Of course we do not know what was said behind the scenes, or what was on Tillerson's mind. Since he deliberately left all reporters from the major media outlets behind - 'I'm not a big media press access person,' he confided - we may have to wait a long time before finding out. I frankly doubt, however, that Tillerson 'caved' and simply parroted Xi's great-power formulation. If Tillerson was overly accommodating, it may be because he was wanting to smooth over Trump's undiplomatic tweets in preparation for the upcoming Xi-Trump meeting in Florida.

What Tillerson's visit means for dealing with North Korea is even less clear. The Chinese want the US to get back to the bargaining table, believing that the 'North Korea problem' is for the US and South Korea to solve. Washington keeps trying to make the problem China's too: 'China has done little to help!' said Trump as Tillerson was en route. 'Help,' of course, means undermining the Kim Jong-un regime, which China is not about to do. Nothing that has come out of the Tillerson meeting with Xi suggests that common ground has been found on North Korea.

If US policy towards China is now 'results-oriented,' as the administration insists, Tillerson's diplomacy doesn't show much beyond polite promises of cooperation. The Chinese obviously don't want war on the Korean peninsula, but they are no more prepared now than in the past to jettison the Kim regime despite having substantial misgivings about it and imposing modest sanctions on it. Chinese leaders are also probably convinced that a war between North Korea and the US is unlikely despite all the tough talk. 

The proposal of Foreign Minister Wang Yi prior to Tillerson's arrival for a 'double suspension' - North Korea suspends its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for US and South Korea suspension of their military exercises - is dead in the water. In truth, freezing the current situation is not a bad deal for either side, though even if Washington and Seoul had agreed, China's ability to deliver on a North Korean suspension is doubtful.

That leaves the Trump-Xi summit as the next best opportunity to come up with a common approach on North Korea. Don't bet on it, however - not unless the US is prepared finally to accept that there are no military solutions to North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Washington must support China's position that only diplomacy can constrain Pyongyang - and that the US must take the lead in moving back to the bargaining table. - Mel Gurtov                                          

The above was originally published on Mel Gurtov's blog 'In the Human Interest' (


1. Renmin ribao,

2. People's Daily Online,



*Third World Resurgence No. 317/318, Jan/Feb  2017, pp 34-37