I’ve THAAD it with North Korea

I’m going to do something that I shouldn’t be doing and that’s briefly talking about THAAD in South Korea because the current Public Forum topic is “Resolved: Deployment of anti-missile systems is in South Korea’s best interest.

The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation reports that:

THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system] is designed to defend against short, medium, and intermediate-range missiles by intercepting them as they fall towards their targets. A radar system tracks incoming missiles and a control unit coordinates the launch of interceptor missiles from truck-based launchers. The interceptor missiles then slam into incoming missiles, destroying them without explosives in what is called a hit-to-kill intercept. According to a Department of Defense release, THAAD is being deployed on the Korean Peninsula, “to ensure the security of South Korea and protect alliance forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats.”

More concerning is the basic math:

Currently, only one THAAD battery, composed of six launchers carrying eight interceptor missiles each, is approved for deployment in South Korea. North Korea is estimated to possess 1,000 ballistic missiles. THAAD would only be a viable defense in the case of a limited attack by North Korea with missiles that fall within THAAD’s range.

So the status quo anti-missile system is inadequate, and we’re wondering if it’s in South Korea’s intereste to expand it. And at a glance it seems like it probably is, since it’s what the South Korean President wants. Yonhap news agency reports that

The United States and South Korea are “moving forward” on the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in the Asian ally as tensions soar over North Korea’s missile programs, the Pentagon said Monday. … President Moon Jae-in called for installing four additional launchers for the missile shield, despite earlier reluctance, after North Korea tested its second intercontinental ballistic missile in July.

So that’s great, except we’re not done because missiles aren’t the real problem: As Mark Bowden reports in The Atlantic:

For years North Korea has had extensive batteries of conventional artillery—an estimated 8,000 big guns—just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is less than 40 miles from Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a metropolitan area of more than 25 million people. One high-ranking U.S. military officer who commanded forces in the Korean theater, now retired, told me he’d heard estimates that if a grid were laid across Seoul dividing it into three-square-foot blocks, these guns could, within hours, “pepper every single one.” … the threat of Seoul’s destruction by North Korean artillery “really constrains people, and it’s really hard to combat,” says John Plumb, a Navy submarine officer who served as a director of defense policy and strategy for the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

So contrary to an easy affirmative position, THAAD absolutely fails to save tens of millions of South Koreans if North Korea starts shooting. This is not surprising or disappointing because we know that Gadgetry is not Strategy. But the question is about “best interest” so it’s very important to pitch a clear definition of best interest that works. I might define it–and the weighing mechanism for the round–as “South Korea’s best interest is avoiding war with North Korea, and if having defenses like THAAD in place does that, then deploying anti-missile defenses is in South Korea’s best interest.”

For the affirmative, in Why Nations Go to War Stoessinger observes that a failure to faithfully signal intentions to defend allies from aggressors is functionally an invitation for aggression, even citing Korea:

Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a speech before the National Press Club in Washington on January 12, 1950, had outlined the “military defense perimeter” of the United States. There was one notable omission: Korea. It is reasonable to assume that Stalin, thus encouraged, ordered the North Koreans to attack the South. (p 63)

This is later echoed with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait:

U.S. Ambassasdor April Glaspie, an Arabist scholar, met with Saddam and, according to the Iraqi transcript of the meeting, told him that the United States had “no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.” … Could it be that Saddam was emboldened or even misled by this apparent passivity the way Kim Il Sung of North Korea might have been emboldened forty years earlier to invade South Korea? After all, the United States had neglected to include South Korea in its defense perimeter in 1950. (p 303-4)

And when we consider this history in context of current headlines like

… we can see that the value of THAAD isn’t just shooting down missiles, but rather being a token to re-affirm the United States’ military alliance in a time of turmoil.

The question is whether this token is a good token or will merely be seen as additional provocation from a president who wishes he were in an 80’s action flick. Yonhap (previously cited) reports that:

North Korea denounces the [US/South Korea joint military] drills as a rehearsal for war, sparking concerns tensions will escalate further following a week of harsh rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.

and we continue a policy of brinksmanship by ratcheting up those drills’ aggressiveness:

Four US F-35B fighter jets joined two US B-1B bombers and four South Korean F-15 fighter jets in the joint US-South Korean flyover of the Korean Peninsula, an official with the South Korean air force told CNN. The exercise was designed to “strongly counter North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile tests and development of nuclear weapons,” the official said.


North Korea has long lamented these U.S. flights, which are seen by Washington as a way to assure its allies in Seoul and Tokyo of its resolve against North Korea. Pyongyang, however, sees the flights as a highly threatening gesture. It claims that the B-1B Lancer continues to serve a nuclear delivery mission, even thought the United States has physically disabled these aircraft from delivering nuclear weapons under its bilateral arms control commitments with Russia.

Let’s go on a tangent with the B1-B and Russia. The B1-B shouldn’t be able to carry nuclear payloads because of a treaty with Russia, but it is still quite big and Russia is withdrawing from those treaties lately and is now far more supportive of North Korea than China is, another worrying echo of how the Korean War started. Now, if we want to get speculative, we might point out that Russia physically verifies the state of our bombers in accordance with the treaty and if North Korea is asserting, despite their relationship with Russia, that our B1-Bs are nuclear-capable, it may well be because Russia is not interested in dissuading them from this dangerous delusion or perhaps has gone so far as to feed lies to North Korea to increase their paranoia. Mother. Fucker.

But here’s the flip side: we don’t actually have to keep tensions high. If Trump would just STFU, everything might quiet down for the winter. After all,

aggressive rhetoric is pretty standard for North Korea. Issuing threats to get the West’s attention and signal strength has been Pyongyang’s approach for years; it did not indicate any major change in North Korea’s policy toward the United States. … When things really got scary, though, is when President Trump responded. During a public appearance on August 8, he warned that “North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States” or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” … While threats like this are normal coming from Pyongyang, they are not how the United States usually talks to North Korea. Trump’s belligerent statement raised the risk of the conflict by sending a signal to the North that its fairly normal behavior could be met with an abnormal American response — potentially including military force. … “His words could … lead Pyongyang to miscalculate or believe it needs to act preemptively if it believes a US attack is imminent,” Rosenberger told me at the time. “Those consequences could be catastrophic.” … It was a dangerous cycle: North Korea, Trump, and breathless media coverage all egged each other on, creating a situation where each side believed the risk of war — though still low — was growing. … in a climate where the president was constantly making threats, it was harder for the North to step back from the brink without looking like Trump badgered them into submission. … This doesn’t mean that North Korea has put off its threat against Guam solely because Trump’s eye is focused elsewhere. It’s more than likely they would have done it anyway. It’s just that the president’s refocus on Charlottesville helped create a climate where it was easier for the North to deescalate without losing face. … It’s a strange world where the US president being pulled away from a crisis with a foreign power actually makes the US safer — but that’s the nature of America under … Donald Trump.

And that’s how it breaks down: we have to signal our resolve to defend our allies and the rules-based world order to keep North Korea from thinking it’s a good time to attack South Korea, but Trump is also the absolute worst at signaling anything, and that raises the likelihood of war breaking out by miscalculated brinksmanship.

“We were only trying to bloviate; we meant no bravado!” would be a shitty epitath for our civilization.

But this is where the negative has the upper hand: while an expanded THAAD deployment is probably not the worst thing for South Korea to be doing in this current situation, South Korea’s best interest is nowhere near this situation. South Korea’s best interest is having actual diplomats–level-headed and mature–maintaining a status quo that keeps North Korea’s ambitions in check without sharpening North Korea’s wrath. And in the status quo, that’s not an option. So they may as well deploy THAAD while B1-Bs are buzzing North Korea, but don’t mistake it for being in their best interest.