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Nuclear conundrum in Korean Peninsula

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Nuclear conundrum in Korean Peninsula

THAAD deployment will hurt both South Korea and China and no one knows if it is going to be zero-sum game or win-win situation for both, writes RAJARAM PANDA

By the series of provocative acts, the latest being the firing of four banned ballistic missiles on March 6th, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), North Korea not only is acting in violation of UN Security Council resolutions but has brought the Asian continent to the threshold of a major conflagration, which if goes unchecked, would undo at one stroke all the prosperity that humanity has laboriously preserved for decades. A nuclear war is feared too.

What makes Pyongyang under the leadership of very unpredictable Kim Jong-un behave the way he has been doing since coming to power? Three factors could be deciphered from his recent acts as likely trigger. First, the regime seems to be fragile and Kim is under constant fear of being toppled, which is why suspects are eliminated ruthlessly by purging, executions or sending to labour camps where those interned die painful deaths to stamp his authority. Since coming to power, some 40 senior government and military officials have reportedly been executed and the list includes his uncle Jang Song-theak, once the second powerful person in the country, and the Defence Minister. The list could be much more.

The second could be the annual US-South Korea military drills, which Pyongyang always insisted are invasion rehearsal. The third trigger could be the decision by the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery anti-missile system meant to intercept and destroy short and medium-range ballistic missiles fired by the North during their final phase of flight. THAAD deployment issue has made the situation messy as this is objected by Russia and China. This article intends to discuss this issue and the long-term implication for the region.

The initial decision to deploy THAAD was taken by then South Korean President Park Geun-hye before she was impeached over corruption scandal. This issue is controversial even within South Korea as the residents in the area identified as the site fear threat to the environment and therefore to their life. Even some political parties are opposed to it.

Ever since news surfaced that THAAD shall be deployed, China campaigned to put pressure to stop. First, it banned Chinese tour groups to South Korea and boycotted a retail company after it alleged to supply land for the THAAD deployment. However, whether China’s objections are legitimate or not is a different matter. The truism is Beijing is either unwilling to use its leverage to rein Pyongyang owing to its own strategic compulsions or suffers from real inability to influence Pyongyang to change course. Beijing could be the victim of its own ally too. So long as the security threat remains, there would be a case for THAAD deployment too. This shall be discussed later.  

So, despite strong opposition at home and abroad, the South Korean government signed land swap deal with Lotte Group for THAAD. Even acquiring the land from the Lotte Group is not free from corruption rumour. Lotte, the country’s fifth largest family-controlled conglomerate was suspected to have agreed to offer its land for the THAAD deployment in exchange for the rejection of the attempt to detain its chairman and the restoration of its lost license to operate downtown duty free shops. Opposition parties criticised the government’s decision to exchange military land for the Lotte-owned golf course to be the site where THAAD was to be deployed. Seeing tensions mounting as a result of close to two dozen missile launches by Pyongyang of various ranges, the US and South Korea announced their decision in July, 2016 to deploy by the end of 2017. The previous chosen site was altered in September, 2016 for the golf course in Seongjucounty, North Gyeongsang province.   

Following the change of site, the arrest for Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin was rejected by a Seoul court. Shin was accused of embezzlement and breach of trust worth millions of US dollars. The retail giant was suspected of donating millions of dollars to non-profit foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, Park’s long-time confidante. Though Lotte regained its duty free shop license, the corruption scandal led to President Park’s impeachment. It is unclear if the land swap contract was to Lotte’s interests as it depends on Chinese consumers and tourists for much of its revenue in duty free shops and other retail services as Chinese people were likely to boycott Lotte products and services.  

As per the arrangement between the Defence Ministry and Lotte, the golf course owned by Lotte evaluated for $78.6 million will be swapped for a military land in Gyeonggi province near Seoul. Once the land is acquired, issues such as designing of the base, environmental effects and construction would be taken up. In view of the mounting tensions, efforts are in place to carry out multiple procedures simultaneously to save time. As against the initial targeted date of December, 2017 now both the US and South Korea feel that by the end June or even by April, 2016 THAAD should be in place.

While the ruling party in South Korea strongly supports THAAD as a vital national security measure, public support is divided. Even some opposition party leaders have come out openly against it. Those who oppose say that THAAD has its own limitations and cannot really defend against a short-range attack on the Seoul region, which houses nearly half of the country’s population. They also argue that in the event of a major attack, THAAD’s 48 interceptor missiles will be unable to stop more than 1,000 missiles that North Korea could fire. Those opposed to THAAD also weigh the limited military advantage over the cost of damaging relations with China and argue costs are higher than benefits.       

The residents of Seongjucounty and the Gimcheon city are also upset because the area would be exposed to super microwave-emitting anti-missile system and are planning to seek judicial remedy. The residents accuse that Defence Minister Han Min-koo overlooked public opinion and failed to evaluate environmental effects of the THAAD battery deployment. The truism is that deployment of THAAD will hurt both South Korea and China and no one knows if it is going to be zero-sum game or win-win situation for both. One thing however is sure that a new situation will be created with THAAD deployment from which both countries will find trapped with little scope to exit.   

Be it as they may, the threat to the country’s security is such that the government had no other option than to override domestic opposition as well as opposition from China and Russia who feel that THAAD’s X-band radar can peer deep into their territories and therefore a security threat to them. By its provocative acts, North Korea has indirectly pushed a break in strategic balance in the region and the resultant arms race.

So, following North Korea’s missile firing on March 6th, the US advanced its deployment of the first elements of its THAAD system to South Korea to counter North Korea’s aggressive behaviour with a view to reaffirm its commitments to defend its ally as well as to defend US troops in the region from North Korean attack. Following North Korea’s missile firing on March 6th, President Donald Trump spoke to Prime Minister Abe and South Korea’s Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn reassuring America’s “ironclad commitment to stand with its allies. Despite US assurance, both Japan and South Korea seem to be less confident now to exclusively rely on the US and therefore preparing to seek other means to defend their security. The security situation in Asia looks grave at the moment.

(To be concluded)

The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either of the ICCR or the Government of India





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