- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
North Korea fired four anti-ship cruise missiles into the waters between Korea and Japan on Thursday morning, just a day after the new president of South Korea put the brakes on an upcoming deployment of four American missile defense systems to his country.
The administration of new president Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning politician who favors rapprochement with North Korea, suspended the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems (THAAD), in what has emerged as a contentious domestic fight over how Seoul juggles its relations with China, North Korea, and the United States.
The move appears in part to be a concession to Chinese objections to the deployment. It is also in direct defiance of the American policy to confront North Korea’s growing ballistic and mid-range missile programs.
South Korean military officials said they believe the surface-to-ship missiles flew about 125 miles after being launched near Wonsan on North Korea’s East coast, and come less than a week after the United Nations Security Council passed a new resolution widening existing sanctions against Pyongyang as punishment for its continued missile tests.
Moon in some ways is inheriting a political headache from his disgraced predecessor, who greenlighted the deployment of the defense systems before being impeached and removed from office in early March, just as the first two THAAD systems were being installed on a golf course.
Moon, who campaigned on the promise of opening a new era of engagement with North Korea, complained that the THAAD deployment was rushed through, giving his government no chance to take part in the decision making process. Still, he agreed that the two systems that had already arrived would stay, but wanted to pause further deployments.
Seoul needs to “learn to say no” to Washington, Moon has said. But he has also acknowledged that he has to bring Washington along if he is to open talks with North Korea.
“THAAD is a bargaining chip for President Moon,” said Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “His political base likes taking a Korea First stance on a military system rushed into deployment by the main opposition party of the previous government.”
Moon and his new government reacted angrily when they discovered they had not been informed about the upcoming arrival of four more interceptors, and ordered an environmental assessment before they arrive.
“My order for a probe on THAAD is purely a domestic measure and I want to be clear that it is not about trying to change the existing decision or sending a message to the United States,” Moon told visiting U.S. Senator Dick Durbin in Seoul last week.
There is little indication that the new government is looking to significantly restructure relations with the United States, which is a major trading partner, maintains 23,000 troops in the country, and sells billions of dollars worth of advanced military technology to Seoul.
Still, the halt on the THAAD deployment can be seen as a new wrinkle in an old relationship, and a significant win for Beijing, which has strongly objected to the radar and missile interceptor system being deployed on the peninsula.
China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner, accounting for about a quarter of its exports, and has sought to make the THAAD deployment sting. Citing health and safety issues, China shut down 87 of 99 of South Korean conglomerate Lotte’s department stores in China in the days after THAAD arrived in South Korea, and stopped work on South Korean-funded theme park.
In order to ease tensions, just days after his election Moon sent an envoy to Beijing to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Upon his return, China stopped blocking Lotte’s web site, and walked back some other economic pressures.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated Beijing’s opposition to the missile-defense system, which China fears could be used to neuter its own strategic missile forces.
“China’s stance of opposing the THAAD deployment by the U.S. in [South Korea] is clear, consistent and firm,” the spokesperson said.
Moon also recently sent his top national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, to Washington to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to discuss the threat from North Korean missiles.
Photo Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images