What are the Chinese Telling Us by Bullying South Korea so Much over Missile Defense?


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This is a local re-post of an essay wrote for The National Interest about 10 days ago. Basically, I’m curious why the Chinese are making such a huge deal out of THAAD missile defense. They’ve been bullying South Korea relentlessly for a year or so now over this. But THAAD doesn’t even impact them, as everyone knows now. That graphic over, from the Heritage Foundation, nicely illustrates that.

So the big question is why. Why is China making a huge deal of something where it’s so obviously on the wrong side of the debate? (Everyone can see North Korea’s nuclear missile program and South Korea’s obvious need for a ‘roof.’) Why does China think something this minor – THAAD has no impact on Chinese strategic forces – is worth wrecking a decent relationship with South Korea, one of the few regional states that is not that scared of China’s rise? Is this coercive diplomacy to prove Chinese regional hegemony, with South Korea being the first target to be bullied into knuckling under? Is Vietnam next? Or does China really care about North Korea so much that it wants NK to be able to blackmail South Korea with nuclear missiles?

I can’t believe that latter explanation is right. To me, this is China feeling its oats. It’s rising; no longer feels it has to keep its head down per Deng’s early advice. Now it’s number 2 in the world, on the way to being the world’s largest economy. So it’s going throw its weight around, and the states closest to it will feel the hammer of its prestige-seeking fall first.

The full essay follows the jump:

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The THAAD Debate is now Wildly Overwrought and Exaggerated


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This a local re-posting of an essay I just wrote this week for The National Interest here. That pic is mine, taken next to the US embassy in Seoul.

Basically, I’m amazed at how unhinged the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense debate has become in South Korea. The South Korea left is really digging in its heels and turning this into a huge issue. ‘Activists’ have shaven their head and and thrown eggs at officials supporting deployment. Opposition lawmakers even went to Beijing, which strongly opposes the deployment, to ‘apologize.’ The National Assembly, now with a leftist majority, wants a vote on THAAD, and this might even become a presidential election year.

I honestly don’t understand this at all. All THAAD does is raise South Korea’s missile defense roof by about 100 kms. That’s it. SK already has lower tier missile defense, and THAAD’s radar adds nothing that the US doesn’t already have (contrary to China’s assertions, which the Chinese know but won’t admit). Yet the South Korea left and China (cynically) are treating this like the apocalypse, as some massive re-orientation of the northeast Asian strategic landscape. It’s not.

This is not intended to seem partisan. I actually agree with the SK left on a lot of domestic issues, such as better regulation of the chaebol, press freedom, protests rights, the SK right’s creepy mccarthyism. But on North Korea, I just don’t get the SK left at all, and running off to China over THAAD looked like craven appeasement of a bully. Appalling flunkeyism.

Anyway, read after the jump about why THAAD only buys SK a little more time to figure out to response to NK missilization. It’s hardly a revolution.

The ‘Missilization’ of Conflict in Northeast Asia


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Earlier this month, I wrote a short op-ed for Newsweek Japan (issue cover to the left) on missiles and conflict Northeast Asia. I reprint that essay below in its English original.

My editor first wanted me to write something on North Korea’s latest tests. But everyone writes about that, and all the talk of missiles and missile defense up here got me thinking about the larger issue that drones, missiles, and other cheap air platforms increasingly look to me like the wave of the future.

Today’s (failed) North Korean missile test just reinforces the argument of this essay –  that any future conflict out here will involve a lot more unmanned airpower than people think. So yes, the big US bases out here are important, and politicians will continue to extol ‘the troops’ in order to get re-elected. But swarming drones, missiles, robot planes, and so on, guided by space-based C2ISR, is probably a lot cheaper and effective. (Read this on how much unconventional airpower would be involved in a conflict with China, and this on ‘swarming.’) The full essay follows the jump.

Enough Dithering, South Korea. It’s Time to Deploy THAAD Missile Defense


The debate on missile defense in South Korea is accelerating. Increasingly it looks like there will be some kind of stationing of ‘Terminal High Altitude Area Defense’ (THAAD, pictured). This is almost certainly a good thing, because North Korea’s programs keep going and going; no one would really trust Pyongyang to adhere to a deal at this point anymore anyway; and North Korea is not in a nuclear rule-system, like the IAEA or NPT, so we really have no idea what’s happening in much detail. Remember that their HEU program was kept hidden pretty well and then suddenly revealed.

Given all this uncertainty, and North Korea’s established history of lying, especially about its nuclear program, missile defense strikes me as a no-brainer. It is clearly a defensive weapon too, so it does not add to South Korea’s ability to offensively strike North Korea. The North won’t really be able to credibly criticize the system as a ‘tool of imperialism’ or something (although they will certainly say that anyway). Also, in passing for IR theorists, I’d say this debate nicely illustrates both the security dilemma and the offense-defense balance debate.

The full essay follows the jump; it was first published in The Diplomat here earlier this month.

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Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites?


The picture to the left is the poster from a South Korean film in which a North Korean coup forces South Korea to launch on air-strike on Nork missile sites. It’s not very good (it’s the Top Gun of Korea), but it’s the closest pop-culture reference I could think of to the argument I make below.

My growing concern for years now is that the more nuclear missiles North Korea acquires (read this on just how many and when), the more they threaten South Korea’s very existence. To date, North Korea’s missile and nukes have generally been understood as a tool for regime security – to prevent an American ‘regime change’ attack – or as a gangsterish way for NK to shake-down SK, Japan, and the US for concessions. As Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton both noted, the Norks are great at selling and re-selling their nuclear program for aid.

But, if NK gets dozens, or even hundreds, of nuclear warheads and missiles, then the NK nuclear program is no longer about regime security or blackmail. It would then have grown into an existential threat to SK as a state and society. This is why I am such a strong supporter of THAAD. NK is moving from being a frightening rogue state obsessed with survival, to a major threat to the constitutional order and even physical survival of the ROK (and Japan). To be sure, the USSR and US were that to each other in the Cold War, but both developed technologies (SLBMs mostly) that allowed them to survive (or ‘ride out’ in nuclear parlance) even a massive first strike and still retaliate. This ‘assured second strike’ capability dramatically reduced the incentive for either side to strike first, so stabilizing the nuclear competition despite the huge size of the arsenals. By contrast, neither NK nor SK have assured second strike (SK might because of the American alliance, but that’s not entirely clear) which therefore incentives attacking first.

Further, both NK and SK are very vulnerable to a first strike, so again the incentives to move first are high. NK cannot hide its nuclear weapons; it is too small and US satellite coverage too intrusive. Nuclear facilities are big and vulnerable, and a obvious temptation for an allied preemptive strike. This creates a ‘use-them-or-lose-them’ dilemma for Pyongyang. And this dilemma worsens as Pyongyang builds more and more, and spends more and more. The more nukes North Korea deploys, the greater the allied temptation to destroy them before they could be used (this was American thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis too). This vulnerability, in turn, incentivizes NK to use them before they’re struck. It’s a nasty spiral of paranoia.

SK too is vulnerable, which again incentivizes moving first. SK cannot ride out a serious nuclear assault, because it is a small, highly centralized state with a highly concentrated population defenseless against missile attack. It would not take many nuclear strikes to destabilize the Republic (unlike the US or USSR in the Cold War). As Nork nukes move from a few for security, to many as a state- and society-breaking threat to SK (and even Japan), the incentives to preemptively destroy them first will grow also. This is a classic nuclear security dilemma, straight out of the Cold War in the 1950s.

The best way out of this nasty, worsening game would be nuclear restraint on the NK part (a pipe-dream, that), and/or robust missile defense on the SK side. THAAD is really, really important to slow the security dilemma paranoia that accompanies arms build-ups, especially nuclear ones. The Chinese ought to think about that before they come out so strongly against THAAD:

If South Korea is entirely ‘naked’ or ‘roof-less’ against missile attack, when NK has 100+ nuclear missiles – a capability that could destroy South Korea in just a few minutes – what does Beijing think will happen? That Seoul will just sit back and do nothing because of trade with China? I doubt it. No SK president could tolerate such a stark, asymmetric threat to the ROK’s very existence just to keep the Chinese mollified. That would border on dereliction of duty. Even if SK did not want to strike North Korea’s nuclear sites (which I don’t think it does), it might feel compelled to out of sheer fear.

These ideas were first fleshed out at The Diplomat here. That essay is re-posted below and repeats the above discussion: