Several prominent East Asia experts declared South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s decision to suspend the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system a big win for China.
Ely Ratner, a former advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, tweeted “China successfully coerces U.S. ally while U.S. has no ambassador, and no assistant secretary of Defense or State.” Tweets by Mira Rapp-Hooper, Abraham Denmark, and Kelly Magsamen echo Ratner’s view that Chinese pressure on South Korea is tied to Moon’s suspension decision. Such assessments are rooted in well-document evidence of China’s opposition to the THAAD deployment and its campaign of economic pressure against South Korea.
The argument that the THAAD suspension is a result of Chinese coercion is not without merit, but this emerging consensus ignores an alternative explanation for Moon’s decision based on domestic politics in South Korea. It is important to take domestic factors surrounding the THAAD deployment and current suspension into account as they may paint a more accurate picture of the decision to suspend the deployment.
The proximate cause of the suspension was a decision by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) to withhold information about the delivery of four THAAD launchers from President Moon. A THAAD battery consists of six truck-mounted launchers, an X-band TPY-2 radar unit, and fire control units. Two launchers, the radar, and fire control systems are already deployed in South Korea. China is trying to pressure South Korea to remove THAAD, but the decision to suspend THAAD deployment was spurred by the MND shooting itself in the foot.
Moon’s decision to suspend THAAD deployment may be unpopular with American Asia-watchers, but it will likely enjoy higher popularity with his constituents. THAAD is a very divisive issue in South Korea. Support for THAAD deployment was closely linked with support for former president, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in March 2017. According to a report by the Asan Institute, “President Park’s impeachment and public distrust of her administration appear to be influencing how Koreans view the issue of THAAD,” with younger people increasingly seeing THAAD in a negative light. Moon’s opposition to THAAD, which moderated somewhat over the course of his campaign, has a domestic politics rationale.
Finally, it is important to note that suspending THAAD deployment is not the same as cancelling it. The Moon administration clearly stated that the two interceptors and TPY-2 radar will remain in operation at their deployment site. Temporarily suspending the deployment of additional interceptors is not a victory for China because it is much more concerned about the THAAD’s radar than its interceptors. The TPY-2 radar’s ability to “peer deep into Chinese territory” and collect data on missile testing is seen as a serious threat to China’s relatively small nuclear arsenal. The legitimacy of these concerns may be up for debate, but Beijing will likely not view a scenario where the system’s radar remains in South Korea as a win.
Correlation is not causation. China does have an interest in rolling back THAAD deployment, it benefits from the suspension, and it is applying economic pressure to achieve its aims, but that does not mean that such pressure resulted in Moon’s decision. Unforced errors by the MND and the politically controversial nature of THAAD among the South Korean public provide an alternative lens for explaining Moon’s decision. The fact that the TPY-2 radar, the THAAD component that most worries the Chinese, will stay in place weakens the argument that Beijing successfully coerced Seoul. Chinese pressure may have influenced Moon’s decision to suspend THAAD deployment, but it is important not to overlook the domestic components of the suspension.