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China’s Waning Leverage Over SKorea Lessens Chances of Retaliation Against THAAD, Experts Say

 China’s waning economic leverage over South Korea is making Beijing less likely to retaliate significantly against Seoul’s normalization of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile defense system, experts say.

South Korea “will take follow-up measures to normalize the [THAAD] base” and “to resolve the inconvenient situation” for American soldiers, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-kyu said at a news briefing Tuesday in Seoul.

Normalization is the process of turning an ad hoc installation at a golf course into a military base that has operational, support and living facilities for the American soldiers operating the system. They are now living in temporary quarters without permanent buildings for support activities.

Jeon said the Defense Ministry seeks to accomplish this through “close consultations with the Ministry of Environment and the U.S.”

The announcement reaffirming the normalization of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), designed to intercept North Korea’s incoming missiles, came after the ministry declared on June 21 that the permanent installation of the system would not pose health and environmental hazards.

The ministry said an environmental impact assessment of the system showed the electromagnetic radiation emitted from the THAAD radar falls below 0.2% of the safety standards.

The radiation peaked at approximately 0.018 watts per square meter, according to the Defense Ministry, based on the assessment conducted with the Ministry of Environment and Korea Radio Promotion Association (RAPA). The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection set a limit of 10 watts per square meter. Exceeding the limit is considered harmful to health.

Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesperson, referred VOA’s Korean Service on Thursday to a statement made by U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) in March that says, “Normalization of the THAAD operations and capabilities provides USFK greater readiness to ensure continued resourcing of the unit, as well as providing greater opportunity to modify the defense design by exercising remote launch options.”

The THAAD system has been stationed on its base in Seongju, a county 220 kilometers south of Seoul, since its deployment in April 2016. Formerly Lotte Skyhill golf course, the base lacks proper operational, support and living facilities for American soldiers in charge of operating the system.

The environmental approval allows the construction of facilities that are necessary to station THAAD permanently at the Seongju base, a location that David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, said via phone to VOA Korean, is “critical” for the missile defense system to fully protect all of South Korea.

On hold

The construction has been on hold since mid-2017 during the tenure of former President Moon Jae-in, who delayed the THAAD normalization to accommodate local protesters and China’s opposition to the deployment while trying to push for a peace process with North Korea.

Seongju county residents and civic groups have been rallying against what they believe is harmful radiation from the THAAD radar since the announcement was made in July 2016 to deploy the system.

That year, Beijing claimed that THAAD’s radar system could pierce into its territory and, in opposition, ordered more than 100 South Korean Lotte Group supermarkets be closed in China citing safety issues.

Lotte had owned the golf course before the South Korean Defense Ministry secured a deal to obtain the lot where the THAAD has been deployed.

After the 2016 announcement to deploy the THAAD, China banned South Korean music groups and other pop culture content and suspended visits to South Korea by Chinese tourists. China partially lifted the bans on tourism and South Korean culture content, but South Korean artists are still prohibited from performing in China.

De-risking under way

As Seoul is gearing up for the permanent installation of the THAAD system, experts say Beijing is less likely to exercise economic retaliation over its opposition.

“China has less leverage now, and like-minded democracies in the free and open Indo-Pacific and throughout the world are in a much different position towards China than they were in 2017,” said Maxwell.

“South Korea now has really started de-risking, and, in some ways, decoupling from China,” Maxwell continued. He added, “Any economic warfare conducted by China will be met with [economic] defense by South Korea and full support by the United States and other allies.”

Growing numbers of Asian, European and American companies have been shifting their production lines and investments out of China.

The G7 countries gathered at their summit in Hiroshima in May said they are concerned about China’s “malign” and “coercive” economic practices. They announced they will form the Coordination Platform on Economic Coercion to respond to such practices.

In an effort to guard against China’s economic pressure, major South Korean electronics companies such as Samsung and LG have been moving their Chinese production lines to India and Vietnam.

Auto giants Hyundai and Kia have been doing the same.

Economic leverage

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said in a phone interview that although China may not have “easy leverage” that it could exercise, it will not completely forego economic pressure on South Korea.

“China is really very clever about establishing influence,” Bennett told VOA Korean. With weaker economies engaged in its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing “applied pressure very rapidly after money that was [lent] to them didn’t get [repaid]” by enacting “severe ramifications,” he said.

Bennett added, however, that with a strong economy like South Korea, Beijing is likely to “do it gradually over time to avoid retaliation from South Korea.”

The Chinese Embassy in Washington told VOA Korean on Tuesday that “we don’t have specific comments” on Seoul’s plans to normalize the THAAD base. The Korean Service also tried to contact the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, which did not respond.

In August 2022, Seoul said the THAAD was necessary for South Korea’s self-defense and was not up for negotiation. Beijing had demanded that the newly elected government of President Yoon Suk Yeol uphold the previous Moon government’s promises known as the “Three Nos policy.”

To assuage Beijing, Moon had agreed to no additional deployment of the U.S. THAAD, no participation in a U.S.-led missile defense network, and no involvement in trilateral military alliances with the U.S. and Japan.

Military aggression

Even with its reduced economic leverage, experts said China would likely continue its military aggression to exert leverage over South Korea.

China will continue its aircraft incursions into South Korea’s air defense zone as it did earlier in the month “regardless of what South Korea does” in its “effort to establish itself as a regional hegemon,” said Bennett.

South Korea should think about purchasing an additional THAAD from the U.S. as a long-term defense not only against North Korea but from China, he continued.

Although North Korea is seen as posing the greatest threat to South Korea now, Bennett said China is more likely to be “the principal opponent” of South Korea in 10 years.

Riki Ellison, founder and chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said in an email to VOA Korean, “China will always be upset with anything missile defense related no matter if it’s the THAAD or other systems deployed near its borders that would be seen to be an offset to China’s superiority in capacity of its rocket and missile forces no matter how small the numbers are.”

He continued, “If China wants to get rid of the THAAD in Korea, then China has to [persuade Pyongyang] to get rid of or significantly reduce North Korea’s rocket and missile forces facing South Korea.”

North Korea launched a record number of missiles last year that continued every month until its failed satellite launch in May.

Source : VOA News