By Zhexin Zhang —
Since North Korea began a new round of nuclear and missile tests early this year, major Northeast Asian players have engaged in heated debate on the implications of deploying the U.S.-backed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system (THAAD) in South Korea. Focusing on whether such deployment will damage the regional balance of strategic deterrence, however, their argument largely ignores the potential consequence of acute security and geopolitical crises in Asia in the near term.
With regard to the start of formal talks between Washington and Seoul on THAAD in early March, the Chinese and Russian governments insist that such deployment “goes far beyond the defense needs of the Korean Peninsula and the coverage would mean it will reach deep into the Asian continent” and thus “directly affects the strategic security interests” of other Asian countries. On the other hand, the strategic circle in the United States, South Korea and Japan tends to hold that facing the clear and present danger from North Korea, South Korea is entitled to deploying THAAD for self-defense. If the system’s tracking/intercepting range is reduced from the designed range of 1200 miles down to 500 miles, some analysts further argue, neither China nor Russia should worry about their deterring power being weakened and thus South Korea should deploy THAAD regardless of China and Russia’s pressure.
Resorting to strategic deterrence concerns gives all regional players a ready narrative, yet it does not help bridge their perception gaps on which is more threatening to regional peace and stability — an apparently provocative North Korea or potential imbalance of mutual deterrence among major powers. Even worse, it may blind them from seeing two other serious possibilities: North Korea’s desperate moves and escalating geopolitical contention in Asia.
The North Korean regime is one built on vulnerable national pride and a deified top leadership. Any public perception of the leadership yielding to external pressure could bring an end to the regime. Thus, the higher the outside pressure, the more bellicose North Korea’s reaction — simply to sustain the image of a fearless, omnipotent leadership. Such need is particularly urgent for Kim Jong-un, as he seeks to further consolidate power and regime unity on the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) to be held in May. So far, North Korea’s actions have been largely bravado. Yet when its leadership senses an imminent fatal threat to the regime, North Korea may possibly launch an all-out strike on South Korean targets at large with over a million troops and massive artillery capacity.
Since the nuclear test on January 6 this year, North Korea has been under mounting international pressure, such as the stringent UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and China’s strong tone about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, South Korea shut the Kaesong Factory Park and launched its largest-ever annual joint military exercises with the United States including “decapitation raids” potentially targeted at the North Korean leadership. The United States has also deployed a large number of strategic weapons platforms including two carriers and B-2 bombers in the past two months. All these are pushing the North Korean leadership toward the verge of a mental breakdown. The deployment of THAAD may be the last straw to their ramshackle confidence, causing them to take fanatic moves in desperate hope for dragging every major power into a regional war.
To prevent this worst case scenario, China and Russia may have no other choice but to give strong and explicit security assurances to the North Korean leadership and, in the process, strengthen their strategic and military coordination. In fact, some Chinese academics such as Tsinghua Professor Yan Xuetong have already advocated for a Sino-Russia security alliance to confront the U.S. rebalancing to Asia. A crucial reason why mainstream strategic experts and officials have refrained from considering such a move is the strategic neutrality of most Asian countries over the past two decades.
Now that more and more East Asian countries like Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are closely tied to the U.S. strategic blueprint, Seoul’s position appears even more crucial. With China as its biggest trading partner and the United States as an ally, South Korea may be the key strategic balancer between the United States and China. Deployment of THAAD would naturally make South Korea a U.S. outpost of forward deterrence in Asia, and thus send a clear signal of South Korea leaning decisively toward the United States. Consequently, not only would South Korea suffer from loss of strategic leverage and worsening political as well as economic ties with China and Russia, but a de facto alliance may also emerge against the U.S.-led alliance system — not for ideology this time, but for strategic space.
In conclusion, deploying THAAD cannot contain North Korea’s provocation, but may generate immediate security and geopolitical crises instead. To mitigate the current tension on the Korean Peninsula and induce North Korea toward denuclearization, the United States and South Korea should take a deescalating approach by downplaying their military stance while maintaining high political and economic pressure on North Korea, and make preparation for resumed talks with North Korea after the 7th WPK Congress. There is already an unprecedented uniformity of the international community against North Korea’s nuclear ambition. What is most needed now is strategic patience.
Dr. Zhexin Zhang is a research fellow at the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) and a visiting fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.