Star Wars is coming to the Korean peninsula even as North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket deepens the confrontation in Northeast Asia between the U.S. and its Korean and Japanese allies versus China, Russia and North Korea.
Tangible evidence of the widening rift was word that South Korea and the U.S. were plunging into talks on deployment of a controversial high-altitude missile defense system that China and Russia bitterly oppose.
Display of model missiles including a North Korean Scud-B at the War Memorial of Korea on February 7, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea launched a long-range rocket carrying a satellite on February 7, 2016. The launch is considered by Western experts as part of a program to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technologies, banned by the multiple of past resolutions of the U. N. Security Council against the country. South Korea, the United States and Japan have requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. (Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images)
As South Koreans were absorbing the news of the missile launch on the first day of their four day lunar new year holiday, U.S. and South Korean officials opened full-scale talks on the system known as THAAD for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. Its deployment would usher in a new era of Star Wars in the region.
South Koreans have long been lukewarm about American insistence on the need to deploy multi-billion-dollar missile launchers theoretically capable of shooting down enemy missiles hurtling more than 100 miles overhead. The successful launch of the latest North Korean rocket apparently convinced the South Koreans that they had better get down to serious talks with the Americans about THAAD – and Star Wars.
South Korea’s deputy defense minister, Yoo Jeh-seung, flanked by Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea’s Eighth Army, the core of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, said the U.S. and South Korea had “decided to start official discussion on the possibility of U.S. Forces Korea’s deployment of THAAD.”
The talks, said Yoo, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, would be “part of measures to upgrade the South Korea-US alliance’s missile defense posture against North Korea’s advancing threats.” General Vandal underlined their importance, saying simply, “It’s time to move forward on the issue.”
U.S. officials have been pressing South Korea on THAAD for the past two years, but they needed the launch of the latest rocket to fortify their argument. One South Korean objection has been concern about offending China, which has repeatedly expressed alarm about THAAD. Chinese believe THAAD is directed against China as much as North Korea.
China’s tepid response to North Korea’s fourth underground nuclear test on January 6 as well as Sunday’s rocket launch has convinced South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye of the need for strong measures.
China came through with an expression of “regret” over the North Korean launch, saying North Korea had “ignored universal opposition of the international community.” While North Korea “should have the right to the peaceful use of space,” said the official Chinese response, “this right is limited by the United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
Analysts saw that statement as a pro forma reaction that indicated China would not support calls in the United Nations for strengthening current sanctions – or, indeed, for enforcing sanctions already put in place after the previous missile launch in 2012 and North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” said Tom Coyner, a long-time consultant here and in Japan. “The debate in the UN will go nowhere. Nobody will do anything.” In fact, he told me, “the story is over.”
President Park reflected the outrage as well as frustration, declaring North Korea had “committed an unacceptable provocation of launching a long-range missile after conducting a fourth nuclear test” and demanding the UN Security Council “quickly come up with strong sanctions.”
Beyond statements, however, there appears little she can do – making it all the more likely that South Koreans will come around to accepting deployment of THAAD missile defense systems as well as other U.S. armaments.
The diplomatic dance seemed sure to go on as South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, said he might go to New York to drum up support in the UN. He also planned to talk on the phone to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida.
U.S. officials hoped the missile launch would induce Japan and South Korea to improve ties. Yun and Kishida agreed in December on a plan to resolve the long simmering dispute on compensation to Korean women forced to serve as sexual slaves for the Japanese in World War II, but the agreement has faltered on Japan’s demands for removal of a statue of a “comfort woman” across a narrow street from the Japanese embassy here.
Koreans tracing the rocket’s trajectory were initially not certain whether it had placed a satellite into orbit as North Korea claimed, but the Korean command said the third stage had gone into space. In any case, both American and Korean analysts view the rocket, known as UNHA 3, as a test for a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead across the Pacific to the U.S. west coast. The rocket has a range of 10,000 kilometers.
The deepest U.S. concern is that North Korea is miniaturizing a warhead to fix on the nose cone of a rocket. So far North Korean scientists and engineers do not appear to have been able to do it, but they are expected eventually to succeed.
That’s all the more reason, in the American view, for deploying THAAD in South Korea for defense against North Korea’s increasing sophistication not only in rockets but in short and medium-range missiles – all capable of hitting targets anywhere in South Korea and Japan.