On June 21, South Korea completed the environmental impact assessment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, opening up the way for its full-fledged deployment in the country.
The deployment aims to strengthen and enhance its defense capabilities against possible threats from North Korea and China.
The deployment of the THAAD system in the East Asian country faced obstacles as concerns were raised by residents of Seongju regarding the potential adverse effects of electromagnetic waves on both human health and the surrounding environment, resulting in protests and hindering its implementation.
In 2017, a THAAD battery, intended to provide South Korea and the United States with the capability to intercept short and medium-range missiles during the descending phase of their trajectory, was positioned at a closed golf course in a central location in South Korea.
Following the latest review, it has been concluded that the potential health risks attributed to the electromagnetic waves emitted by the THAAD battery are considered to be of minimal significance.
Consequently, this outcome has paved the way for the ongoing work on the system to proceed, with the possibility of its complete deployment anticipated within the following year.
China views the potential deployment of THAAD as a significant national security concern, primarily due to the radar capabilities of the American system, which has the potential to extend into Chinese territory.
In 2017, the deployment of a THAAD missile battery triggered a strong and angry reaction from China, as they voiced apprehensions that the anti-missile system could be reconfigured to gather intelligence within Chinese territory.
Beijing retaliated by suspending Chinese group tours to South Korea and obliterating the China business of South Korean supermarket giant Lotte, which had provided land for the missile system.
The complete deployment of THAAD would entail the construction of permanent support facilities to accommodate soldiers and equipment and granting American military personnel daily access to the THAAD base, a privilege they were not afforded during the review process.
South Korea’s former president, Moon Jae-in, a liberal leader who pursued a policy of engagement with North Korea, sought to mend ties with Beijing by making a commitment known as the “Three Nos.”
These assurances included South Korea’s pledge not to deploy additional THAAD systems, not to participate in US-led missile defense networks, and not to establish a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan. These measures were intended to alleviate concerns and promote a more conciliatory approach towards China.
In contrast to his predecessor, the current South Korean President, Yoon Suk Yeol, has pursued a policy of strengthening collaboration with the United States. As a result, South Korea and China have engaged in wars of words over the THAAD issue in recent months.
Last year, China claimed that South Korea had agreed to terms set under the previous administration, but South Korea denied it, stating that the deployment of THAAD is a matter of national security and not up for negotiation.
Understanding China’s Concerns Surrounding The THAAD System
The Chinese leadership vehemently opposes the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. Of particular concern to China is the advanced long-range THAAD X-band radar system.
Many Chinese officials believe that while THAAD may offer some level of defense against North Korean ballistic missiles for South Korea, its primary purpose is to undermine China’s strategic deterrent capability.
Furthermore, they perceive it as a component of a global anti-missile system that threatens Beijing and Moscow. In addition to the THAAD system, the United States has deployed the Patriot Air defense system in South Korea for several years.
In 2018, the United States delivered equipment to upgrade the functionality of the THAAD missile defense system located on the Korean Peninsula.
At the time, the upgrade, as stated by the US military, aimed to enhance the performance of the THAAD system by improving its interoperability with the already deployed Patriot system in South Korea.
This upgrade facilitate the integration of THAAD and the Patriot system, creating a unified defense system that combines their respective capabilities.
The THAAD and Patriot systems are developed and manufactured by leading US defense companies, namely Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies Corporation (RTX).
Regarding tactical functionality, the THAAD system is specifically designed to intercept and neutralize hostile missiles at altitudes ranging from 40 to 150 kilometers.
On the other hand, the Patriot system, including variants like the PAC-3, primarily focuses on intercepting missiles at altitudes of 40 kilometers and below.
Additionally, the THAAD system has a broader coverage area and is primarily intended for protecting larger areas, such as regions or cities. But, the Patriot system is often used to provide point defense, safeguarding specific targets like military bases or population centers.
The interceptors used in the THAAD system are larger and have a longer range than those used in the Patriot system. The THAAD interceptors rely on kinetic energy to destroy incoming threats, while the Patriot system utilizes a hit-to-kill method.
Given the regional security challenges China and North Korea pose, a blended THAAD and Patriot system would offer South Korea heightened protection and readiness to address a wide range of potential missile threats.