Will South Korea reverse long-standing policy and participate in Washington’s missile defense shield for Asia? Reports this week confirm that on January 8 the Ministry of National Defense briefed the transition team of incoming President Lee Myung-bak on Seoul’s options. It now appears that the new administration is interested in joining the effort.
Up to now, outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun, hoping to build bridges to Pyongyang and Beijing, has shunned missile defense cooperation with the Pentagon. South Korea has taken tentative steps to build what it calls KAMD, the Korean low-altitude air and missile network, but Lee looks like he will accelerate scheduled purchases of equipment and integrate his nation’s system with America’s and Japan’s high-altitude one. For instance, South Korea might provide missile-launch or radar sites, join in research and development, or share costs. As one senior official in South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking anonymously, said, “The bottom line is that we will go in a direction toward developing our low-altitude intercept shield into an extended missile defense system.”
Nonetheless, enhanced cooperation with Washington will proceed cautiously due to several factors. First, despite Lee’s landslide win over the so-called “progressive” forces last month, South Korea’s electorate remains almost evenly divided. Any move to sign up for Washington’s missile defense network will undoubtedly cause an uproar in a highly partisan electorate. Moreover, few South Koreans want to go out of their way to upset the Chinese, who are dead set against America’s missile shield plans. Although the defensive system is meant to counter North Korea, Beijing correctly views such plans as a threat to its offensive capabilities as well. And there is also the issue of cost.
Yet active consideration of missile defense in Seoul is an indication of a change in the country’s mood. South Korea is beginning to align its policies with America’s because there is an underlying sense that the North Korea-friendly Sunshine Policy of President Roh and his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, is not working.
The larger point is that, as the pendulum swings back, South Korea is moving closer to the United States and American influence in North Asia is growing. Washington does not need to recognize Chinese ascendance there, as Jason Shaplen and James Laney, writing in Foreign Affairs at the end of last year, seem to think. In short, North Korea’s refusal to give up its nuclear weapons—evidenced by Pyongyang’s failure to meet its year-end obligations—is alienating Seoul and causing more heartburn for Beijing than Washington. After a few difficult years, the initiative is now with the democracies of North Asia, not China.