The folly of putting protection on ice
The high altitude air defense system protects South Korea and American troops
North Korea rarely misses an opportunity to threaten or provoke us. It does so most often with the launching of one or more ballistic missiles accompanied by a harangue that the missiles would soon be launched at us armed with nuclear weapons.
So far this year, North Korea has launched 16 missiles in 10 separate tests. The different kinds of missiles tested, which the Kim Jong-un regime hopes to soon mate with nuclear warheads, were capable of ranges from about 600 miles to over 3,000 miles. Defense Secretary James Mattis has stated plainly that North Korea is a clear and present danger to the world.
Kim’s missiles pose a direct threat to South Korea and the 38,000 American troops stationed there, as well as to Japan and our forces there. Defending against an attack using those missiles has to be a top priority for all three nations. To help counter that threat we began deploying the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system (THAAD) to South Korea in March.
THAAD is a highly-capable missile/radar system that can kill ballistic missiles in their descent stage at very high altitude, even beyond earth’s atmosphere. Two THAAD batteries, each with eight missiles, have already been deployed in South Korea with the concurrence of former President, Park Geun-Hye. Four more, with an additional 32 missiles, are planned to be deployed there.
South Korean politics have, for months, been roiled by the impeachment of Mrs. Park and the election of the new president, Moon Jae-in. Mr. Moon’s campaign promises included a reduction of tensions with the North and China which he linked to the possible delay of THAAD deployment. China has objected strenuously to the deployment of THAAD, saying it could be used to “spy” on Chinese missile capabilities. In a call congratulating him on his inauguration as president, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Mr. Moon to Beijing to discuss THAAD.
Mr. Moon has since put further THAAD deployment on ice pending a full environmental impact study while, at the same time, chastising his defense staff for allegedly not advising him that further deployments were planned. He is evidently positioning himself to bargain away future THAAD deployment in talks with the Chinese.
Mr. Moon should not regard THAAD as a bargaining chip in an effort to reduce tensions with the North and China for two big reasons.
First, THAAD is essential not only to protect South Koreans, it is also essential to our ability to protect the 38,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines stationed there.
Second, if Mr. Moon were to trade THAAD for some promised reduction in North Korean aggression (or Chinese promises to rein in the Kim regime), his bargain would be certain to fail. North Korea has never kept one of its many promises to stop developing and testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Moreover China has never taken any real steps to rein in the North Koreans and has no new motivation to do so now.
It is unrealistic, bordering on irrational, to believe that North Korea can be disarmed peacefully. Given its partnerships with Iran on nuclear weapons and missiles, it’s even questionable whether North Korea is susceptible to deterrence.
Right now, with two THAAD batteries in place, the North Koreans could do the simple arithmetic and decide to attack with more missiles than the 16 we have, overwhelming the deployed batteries. Deploying the other four THAAD batteries won’t prevent that from happening, but it would significantly reduce the effectiveness of any North Korean missile attack and increase the margin of time for a U.S. and South Korean counterattack.
Before Mr. Moon goes to China, or engages Kim Jong-un in any negotiation, President Trump should remind him of the necessity of deploying THAAD to protect our troops. In his March 1983 speech kicking off our missile defense program, President Reagan laid out the moral case — indeed the moral imperative — to defend lives if we have the choice between defending them and avenging their loss. What Mr. Reagan said 34 years ago is no less true today.
Mr. Trump should thus make it clear to Mr. Moon that if he bargains THAAD away in an effort to appease the North Koreans or Chinese, we will reduce the number of American troops in South Korea, perhaps drastically, to prevent them from falling victim to North Korean aggression. That conversation would obviously have to be kept secret which is a difficult task in Mr. Trump’s leaky White House.
Mr. Moon knows that South Korea’s existence has depended on the United States since the North invaded it in June 1950 beginning the Korean War. We have sacrificed a great many lives in its defense in that war and since have spent many billions of dollars for the same purpose. He must understand — or be brought to understand — that our commitment to his nation is not without limits.
In 1983 Mr. Reagan explained that by amassing a missile force far beyond that required for its own defense the Soviet Union was undermining a shaky peace. Today, North Korea is doing the same thing with the same result. That is all the reason we — and Mr. Moon — should need to continue the THAAD deployment in his nation without delay.
Mr. Trump should thus make it clear to Mr. Moon that if he bargains THAAD away in an effort to appease the North Koreans or Chinese, we will reduce the number of American troops in South Korea.