South Korea announces new site for US missile shield as ties with Beijing worsen over Chinese fishermen’s deaths
South Korea’s announcement on Friday of the final site of a US-built antiballistic missile system drew firm opposition in Beijing and a vow to take “necessary measures” to counter the shield.
Analysts said Beijing’s opposition to the deployment was unlikely to waver.
Adding to the tension, three Chinese fishermen were killed on Thursday after South Korean coastguards threw flares and stun grenades as they boarded their boat, Yonhap reported.
South Korea’s defence ministry said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, would be located at a golf course 18km north of the Seongju county centre by next year.
The initial plan was to set up the system at the Seongsan anti-aircraft missile base in Seongju, 296km southeast of Seoul. But the move was met with strong protests by residents over potential health risks that the THAAD radar system posed.
The new site sits 680 metres above sea level – about 300m higher than the initial base – and is also farther away from residential areas, which could allay health concerns, Yonhap reported.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said THAAD’s deployment on the Korean peninsula would not “resolve security issues ... nor will it help realise denuclearisation and maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula”.
“[The deployment] will hurt the strategic and security interests of the countries involved and undermine the strategic balance in the region,” he said. “China firmly opposes it and we will take necessary measures to maintain the strategic balance.”
On Thursday, defence ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said China “means what it says” when it said it would consider countermeasures to THAAD.
Seoul has insisted that the defence system is purely to protect itself from North Korea’s missile threats, but Beijing sees it as a danger to its national interests, allowing a US-backed anti-missile system into the region.
Song Zhongping, a retired instructor with the People’s Liberation Army’s former strategic missile force, said Seoul would not fall under THAAD’s missile interceptor range. “The deployment of THAAD in Seongju suggests the US will set up one more new military base in South Korea. It will become America’s new wedge strategy to counter China’s rise,” Song said.
Jilin University professor Wang Sheng said Yang’s message was “clear that Beijing has been considering cultural, political and military sanctions in the past three months”.
“Beijing has been waiting for Seoul to change its mind because of the close ties in the past but when expectations are high, the disappointment is higher,” Wang said.
Lee Kyu-tae, a geopolitical expert from South Korea’s Catholic Kwandong University, said it would not be wise for Beijing to launch large-scale retaliation against South Korea.
“This would hardly change Seoul’s policy over THAAD ... It would ... trigger a backlash from the South Korean public over their views about China,” Lee said.
Li Kaisheng, from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing was unlikely to risk criticism over tough sanctions against Seoul while the international focus was on the region.
“In the context of the fifth nuclear test by North Korea, the geopolitical focus is now shifting to the Korean peninsula,” Li said. “So it is unlikely China will take very tough action in response.”
Meanwhile, three Chinese fishermen were killed on Thursday as the 102-tonne Chinese vessel “S” was sailing in South Korean waters about 70km southwest of Hong Island near the southwestern city of Mokpo at about 9.45am when coastguard officials ordered it to stop, Yonhap said.
Fourteen coastguard officers boarded the boat to carry out an inspection, but the Chinese crew locked the steering house and engine room.
The officers then threw three flares and sound bombs as they broke the windows of the steering house, Yonhap reported.
Three of the fishermen were found lying unconscious inside the engine room at about noon when the officers broke into the room.
Chinese consular officials have visited the coastguard office in Mokpo to demand a thorough investigation.
Wang Sheng, professor of international politics at Jilin University, said the incident would further complicate relations between Beijing and Seoul at such a sensitive time.
“Fishing disputes are a perennial problem between China and South Korea and it remains unknown if it was an intentional act to provoke trouble or just an accident,” Wang said.
“But given present tensions between the two nations, such incidents should have been avoided to reduce negative impact.”
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan