When I read that South Korea has agreed to deploy the THAAD missile defense system, I was swept over with a profound sense of sadness. For all the misunderstandings that have emerged, many in the United States and Korean military have worked together over the years for a common purpose of establishing stability in the face of a perceived North Korean threat. But this time all logic and science has fallen out of the debate. In fact, it seems as if the decision to deploy was made at the highest level with minimal consultation with the wide range of experts on security who have harbored doubts about the effectiveness of missile defense. The project seems to be driven more by the potential for profit, and recalls the tragic consequences of the political machinations of multinational arms dealers one hundred years ago that drew the world into World War One.
To start with, THAAD is an outdated technology whose ability to stop missiles is doubtful. To the degree that THAAD might work, it does so for missiles flying at high altitudes. North Korea does not need to send missiles at high altitudes to attack South Korea, if such an unlikely scenario unfolded.
After all, if North Korea wanted to kill tens of thousands or more South Korean civilians, it does not need to use any missiles at all, but rather can use its substantial artillery units for which Seoul is fully within range. THAAD is entirely useless against artillery.
Moreover, there are any number of strategies that render the missile defense system ineffective. As THAAD is aimed at missiles flying at a high altitude, most likely is will simply encourage the Chinese, who perceive the system as intended primarily to deter them, to build many more missiles. That will only bring on an arms race and greater insecurity.
There is only one way to respond to the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the SALT (strategic arms limitation treaties) that brought stability to Europe. During the early 1970s, the two sides of the Cold War divide made a commitment to addressing their various disagreements in three ways: through bilateral nuclear agreements between Moscow and Washington, through political and economic discussions in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and through the reduction of military forces in Europe in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) negotiations. But today the United States is not even considering such an approach.
But there is even more to this tragic decision. The immediate threat to security in Northeast Asia is not missiles or nuclear weapons. Creating a peaceful political environment and embracing disarmament regime, starting with the United States, will greatly reduce the chance that such weapons would ever be employed.
But drones are developing at a rapid rate and pose a poorly-understood security threat around the world. The players behind future drone warfare may not even be nation states at all. We have not even started to draft protocols to address the proliferation of drones in the region and their employment. Drones are potentially the most destabilizing aspect of an arms race in East Asia.
Finally, the entire region faces the existential threat of climate change, rising oceans, spreading deserts and the potential of massive dislocation over the next twenty years of hundreds of millions of people. The cost of mitigating climate change, by shifting away from fossil fuels and creating a low-consumption economy, and the cost of adapting to its impact on society through new infrastructure, policy and institutions will cost trillions of dollars and eventually dominate our economy. The United States, China, Japan, Russia and other nations must cooperate closely in the long-term response and establish a common security agenda based on the response to climate change.
It is no longer an option for Koreans to meekly follow misinformed policies like the deployment of THAAD that are issued from Washington D.C. think tanks wallowing in corruption. We cannot waste our precious resources and Korea will be the greatest victim if it permits a greater arms race. If Korea has the bravery and the vision to propose a new security agenda for East Asia with a focus on climate change and emerging threats, and if Korea includes the other nations of East Asia as partners in this enterprise, Korea will find unexpected supporters in the United States or elsewhere.
A nuclear strike on South Korea from North Korea is a highly unlikely scenario. The threat of drone warfare is certain. The existential danger of climate change is guaranteed.
If Korea goes along with a misguided program because of the profits to be made, or because of the political benefits to be gained, the costs for the world will be tremendous and future generations will be unforgiving in their judgment.
This article originally appeared in Kyunghyang Sinmun.