Civic group activists in South Korea on Tuesday voiced concerns about the deployment of a sophisticated U.S. missile defense system as it was expected to trigger arms race in Northeast Asia and escalate regional tensions.
Three civic group activists held a press conference for foreign correspondents in Seoul to express strong opposition to the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment, about which President Park Geun-hye agreed to talk with the U.S. side.
The decision came in response to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) rocket launch and nuclear test. Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket, which outsiders see as a banned test of ballistic missile technology, on Feb. 7, after its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, the fourth of its nuclear detonations.
Hours after the rocket launch, South Korea and the United States announced a plan to begin talks about the THAAD deployment to defend against what they claimed was growing nuclear and missile threats from the DPRK.
“Can it prevent another rocket launch? Can it stop another nuclear test? Can it encourage North Korea (DPRK) to abandon nuclear programs? Is the THAAD an answer to those questions? Absolutely not,” said Park Jung Eun, deputy secretary-general of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula were also escalated by the United States and South Korea, according to the activist. The U.S. military flew a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber after Pyongyang’s nuclear test, and has deployed two F-22 stealth fighters in South Korea following the rocket launch.
Some of ruling Saenuri Party lawmakers demanded the deployment in South Korea of tactical U.S. nuclear weapons, while some even called for South Korea’s own nuclear weapons development. “Fear and anxiety are caused by North Korea (DPRK) and also by U.S. and South Korean governments and politicians,” said Park.
The THAAD deployment is widely believed to escalate regional tensions and arms race as its radar can locate missiles far beyond the DPRK territory. The X-band radar can spot missiles as far as 2,000 km with forward-based mode and 600 km with terminal mode. As the two have the same hardware, the terminal mode, which South Korea plans to adopt, can be changed into the radar with a much longer detectable range.
“Will neighboring countries, including China, sit idle and do nothing? Arms race will be inevitable,” said Park. The activist noted that backlashes from China and Russia had been expected as the radar can cover the region far beyond the DPRK, stressing that the THAAD deployment will not be in South Korea’s interests diplomatically, militarily and economically.
Military effectiveness of the THAAD operation in South Korea has been in doubt as the world’s most advanced missile defense system is designed to track and destroy missiles at a high altitude of 40-150 km. Hundreds of DPRK missiles targeting South Korea fly at a much lower range of less than 20 km.
Social conflicts are expected at home as the radar emits super-strong microwave detrimental to humans and electronic devices. If the radar is deployed northward, it will inevitably face a densely populated region. Forced deployment will cause backlashes from people living in candidate cities and may even kindle anti-U.S. sentiment.
DIALOGUE AND PEACE TREATY
Civic group activists suggested dialogue among relevant parties and a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula as a fundamental solution to the peninsula’s nuclear issue, saying that the THAAD deployment, show of force and tough sanctions will only give the DPRK an excuse to further develop nuclear and missile programs.
“Solution-finding process must start with dialogue,” said Lee Seung-whan, co-representative of civil peace forum and policy committee head for the South Korean commission for the June 15 Joint Declaration.
Lee said South Korean civic groups have long called for the simultaneous push for denuclearization and a peace treaty on the peninsula, which China also proposed as a solution recently.
According to Lee, sanctions over the past 20 years from the international community failed to resolve the DPRK nuclear issue as the country has a closed economy. Tougher sanctions toward Pyongyang in trade will not prevent its nuclear and missile developments. In the meantime, the DPRK will advance its nuclear and missile capability further as seen in the past.
Lee expressed deep worry about military threats from South Korea and the United States, which plan to conduct the largest-ever annual war games set to kick off in early March through April. During the spring drill, the U.S. is expected to dispatch strategic military assets, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
Dismissing Pyongyang’s condemnation, Seoul and Washington had claimed in the past that the annual war games were defensive in nature. “This year, those will be exercises to attack Pyongyang or target (DPRK top leader) Kim Jong Un, which are made public (by South Korea’s military authorities),” said Lee.
The shutdown of a jointly-run factory park in the DPRK’s border city of Kaesong raised risks of military conflicts between the two Koreas. A day after Seoul’s decision to stop operations at the Kaesong Industrial Zone on Feb. 10, Pyongyang closed down the last remaining inter-Korean economic cooperation project and shut down all communication hotlines with the South.
“All of inter-Korean communication hotlines were disconnected. It means South Korea lost a capability to manage even a minor skirmish in border areas with North Korea (DPRK),” said the activist, adding that the possibility increased for military crisis on the peninsula after the shutdown in Kaesong, just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
The U.S. strategy toward the DPRK, called strategic patience, boosted nuclear crisis on the peninsula, according to Park Chang-il, co-representative of civil peace forum. He said the DPRK’s nuclear and missile technology has advanced while the United States has done nothing under the name of strategic patience.
The DPRK’s advancement in nuclear and missile capability provided the United States with a chance to intervene more deeply in Northeast Asian affairs, as part of a rebalance to Asia strategy advocated by the Obama administration to keep in check the rise of China, according to Park. Enditem