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Thaad missile system spooks South Koreans

SEOUL — The fallout from the United States and South Korea’s plan to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system was swift: Hunger strikes and share price falls at home; ire and threats from North Korea and China.

Thaad missile system spooks South Koreans

A terminal high-altitude area defence interceptor is launched during a successful test. While the system has been designed to protect South Koreans from an increasingly bellicose Pyongyang, many fear retaliation from China, their biggest trading partner, to come in the form of sanctions. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL — The fallout from the United States and South Korea’s plan to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system was swift: Hunger strikes and share price falls at home; ire and threats from North Korea and China.

Designed to protect South Korea from an increasingly bellicose Pyongyang, the terminal high-altitude air defence platform (Thaad) has become a lightning rod for tensions between Seoul, Washington and Beijing, which fears its own military may be compromised.

That has spooked South Koreans, who fear retaliation from China, their biggest trading partner, in the form of sanctions — coincidentally or not, a Chinese car company has already ditched its use of South Korean batteries. They also fear that Thaad lacks the range to protect Seoul.

For Washington, the stakes are also high. It has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea to bolster defences against the north, and Thaad is a joint effort, designed and built by America’s Lockheed Martin. But like its South Korean allies, it is unwilling to alienate China, especially amid heightened tensions over the South China Sea.

Thus some see the missile system as fuelling a new geopolitical stand-off, with the US flexing military might in the region to the consternation of Beijing, and potentially pushing China and North Korea closer together.

“The Thaad deployment in the Korean peninsula would reinstate the Cold-War era confrontation between South Korea, US, Japan versus North Korea, China and Russia,” said Mr Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at Sejong Institute.

China, he said, has previously been more willing to implement sanctions on Pyongyang, in part as a way of fending off Thaad. Now without that incentive, “China will likely ease its sanctions against North Korea, basically making the international sanctions powerless”.

North Korea on Tuesday fired three ballistic missiles off its east coast in protest against the planned Thaad deployment.

The timing of the Thaad decision suggests that Seoul is focusing on its security alliance with Washington. But some analysts also see it as the result of dwindling faith in China’s ability to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambition and Beijing’s potential economic retaliation against Seoul.

Mr Bong Young-shik, researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, believes Ms Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s President, lost faith with Beijing when she was unable at the start of the year to reach Mr Xi Jinping, her Chinese counterpart, after what Pyongyang called its first hydrogen bomb test.

“She must have felt humiliated when she could not get hold of Mr Xi through the hotline, which might have convinced her that South Korea cannot rely on China any longer,” he said.

The technological progress demonstrated last month by North Korea’s intermediate-range missiles would have further encouraged Washington to push Seoul on Thaad, he added. “The latest Musudan missile launch seems to have been the trigger that pushed things over the line,” he said.

Having initially shied away from Thaad, Seoul began talks with Washington in February after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch. This prompted the international community to toughen sanctions on the communist regime.

On July 14, South Korea announced plans to base the platform in the rural town of Seongju, about 300km south of Seoul, triggering a protest and hunger strikes by several local councillors. Local leaders, in a letter penned in blood, wrote: “We oppose with our lives the Thaad deployment.”

The location has also angered non-locals, as the Seoul metropolitan area, which contains about half of South Korea’s 50 million population, would be out of the system’s 200km range — although it would help protect most US military bases and soldiers from a North Korean strike.

South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn visited Seongju two days later on July 16 to explain the decision, only to be met with jeers from protesters, while his security team were pelted with eggs and water bottles.

“Many South Koreans are disappointed as they realise Thaad is not a universal sword that can destroy any incoming North Korean missiles as the government has promoted it,” said Mr Kim Dong-yeob, professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University. “They are now wondering for whom and for what the system is deployed.”

Nor are the economic repercussions lost on South Korea, where the export-oriented economy is wilting under waning demand from China and elsewhere. Alienating China, they fear, would lead to more economic distress.

China signalled its displeasure when Mr Wang Yi, Beijing’s Foreign Minister, said Thaad had exceeded the Korean peninsula’s defence requirements. A ministry spokesman added that China would take “relevant measures” to safeguard its interests.

Political analysts see China responding in two ways: Reducing pressure on Pyongyang, further undermining international sanctions, and raising tariff barriers on trade with South Korea.

That would hurt South Korea. China buys one-quarter of South Korea’s exports, making it the country’s biggest economic partner. The value of South Korea’s stock market dropped by nearly US$3 billion (S$4 billion) in a single day after the Thaad announcement, with shares in cosmetics, casino and travel companies — heavily reliant on Chinese demand — bearing the brunt.

“Deploying Thaad is a huge mistake on South Korea’s part, and if the pressure from South Korean civilians is not enough for South Korea to reconsider this decision, it could mean a historical low for China-South Korea relations,” said Mr Cui Zhiying of the Tongji University Centre for Asia-Pacific studies.

“China might take steps to introduce some sanctions against companies that were supportive of the decision, and once the missile is in place, the new norm will be missiles aimed at Thaad.”

Anhui Jianghuai Automobile, the Chinese carmaker, said it would cease production of an electric vehicle equipped with batteries made by South Korea’s Samsung on fears the model could be disqualified from government subsidies.

“China will not likely hurry with its economic retaliation. It will gradually strengthen non-tariff barriers against Korean products rather than taking outright retaliatory measures,” said Mr Bong. “But it is such a lopsided business partnership so South Korea will suffer greatly if China starts to squeeze the Korean economy just a little.” FINANCIAL TIMES

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