South Korea and the United States have reached an agreement to deploy an advanced missile defense system in South Korea to protect the country from North Korean missile attacks. The decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), announced on July 8 in Seoul, follows five months of negotiations between Seoul and Washington, which sparked questions about its capabilities, along with how it would function in a live, operational setting. A South Korean Defense Ministry official said the system could be operational by the end of 2017.
“When combined with the lower-tier Patriot defenses, THAAD, which intercepts ballistic missiles above the atmosphere, greatly enhances South Korea’s capacity to block a substantial fraction of missiles emanating from North Korea,” said Michael Elleman, a Consulting Senior Fellow for Missile Defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a regular contributor to 38 North, a project of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. “But it cannot provide absolute protection against a nuclear attack from the North. Moreover, Pyongyang will almost certainly begin to devise countermeasures to help limit the impact of this deployment, including launching missiles in large salvos to overwhelm the defenses.”
Joel Wit, a Senior Fellow at the US-Korea Institute, commented, “While the deployment of THAAD is a necessary measure given the growth of North Korea’s nuclear and missile inventories, this step is only likely to widen the gap between the United States and China over a strategy to deal with the dangers posed by North Korea. It is essential that Washington and Beijing find cooperative paths forward, or else regional tensions are only likely to increase.”