1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Money vs security

March 2, 2017

Given the choice between trade with China and protecting its citizens, South Korea is opting to do what it can to minimize the danger posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs. Julian Ryall reports.

US Raketenabwehrsystem THAAD
Image: Reuters/U.S. Department of Defense/Missile Defense Agency

China is showing no signs of stepping back from its vehement opposition to the deployment of the US Army's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, despite Seoul's efforts to convince Beijing that it is designed purely to protect South Korean citizens from a belligerent and nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang.

Beijing has reiterated its anger at the proposed deployment of a THAAD battery since a member company of the Seoul-based Lotte Group recently confirmed that it had reached agreement to provide a golf course in Seongju County as the base for the system.

South Korea's Ministry of National Defense announced on Tuesday, February 28, that it was taking control of the site for the battery. Within a few hours, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry addressed a news conference, saying Beijing "is firmly opposed to and strongly dissatisfied with" Seoul cooperating with the United States to bring forward the deployment of the THAAD battery and "ignoring China's interests and concerns."

Veiled threats

In a thinly veiled threat, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China will "resolutely take necessary actions to safeguard its own security interests."

Former US envoy to Seoul: Pyongyang nuclear threat may be 'months away'

That theme was continued by state-run media, with The Global Times quoting Song Zhongping, a former officer in the People's Liberation Army, as saying that once THAAD is deployed, "Seongju County will appear on the list of the PLA's missile system's strike targets."

A more immediate threat comes in the form of suggestions that Beijing is going to make business life difficult for the Lotte Group in China, stepping up a campaign that has so far targeted South Korean music and entertainment groups performing in China.

South Korean airlines were also refused permission to operate additional flights over the busy Chinese New Year period.

And analysts say that should South Korea continue to push ahead with the deployment of THAAD, then more companies may find it increasingly difficult to operate in China.

"They do have a track record of putting pressure on South Korea ever since the plan to deploy THAAD was first announced last year," said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

"A number of cultural presentations in China have been cancelled, authorities have stepped up investigations into Korean companies in China and it seems that the next step will be to put additional pressure on Lotte's operations there," he told DW.

Power over the public

The government's control of the media also gives it power over the Chinese public, the expert noted, pointing to an editorial in The Global Times that declared "Chinese consumers should become the main force in teaching Seoul a lesson, punishing the nation through the power of the market."

And the impact has been swift; Lotte's Chinese-language website was disrupted on Tuesday by unidentified hackers, while protesters outside a Lotte mall in Jilin Province, northeast China, displayed a placard that read, "Lotte has issued a declaration of war against China and Lotte should leave China right now."

"Chinese people will support whatever the government tells them," said Nagy. "There has been an upsurge in nationalist rhetoric on the Weibo and WeChat social media sites and this sort of tactic can have a serious economic impact on Lotte and South Korea."

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, agrees that the economic fallout for South Korea could be serious as nearly 30 percent of Korean exports are to China.

But, he told DW, the national security threat that South Korea faces "trumps that several times over because having a good business in China is no help at all if you are targeted by a North Korean nuclear missile."

Seoul and Washington have repeatedly explained to the Chinese government that THAAD is purely a defensive system, although Beijing insists that its powerful radar will be able to peer into Chinese territory and will alter the security balance in East Asia.

Claims are 'absurd'

"I believe China has some minor legitimate concerns, but they are being exaggerated," Pinkston said.

"Chinese officials and the media there frequently and repeatedly misrepresent the issue as opposed to addressing minor technical issues. Really, for China, this is about the regional security architecture of the US and its allies in the region, primarily South Korea and Japan, and the US military presence in both those countries.

"China's ICBMs are not launched from that part of the country so for them to claim that THAAD is a threat is nonsense," he argued.

North Korea fires three ballistic missiles

"Equally, reports that you see in their media that this is some 'precursor to a plot to wage war on China' is simply absurd."

Pinkston said his contacts in the South Korean government have expressed both concern and bewilderment at the stance being adopted by China - which has made it clear in the past that it would not rush to South Korea's assistance if the nation was ever threatened.

"It's surprising to watch," he said. "China is taking more measures and encouraging more rhetoric among its own people against a country that wants to deploy a defensive system than it has against North Korea, which is keeping up a steady routine of missile tests and nuclear tests close to the Chinese border.

"What would they do in similar circumstances?" Pinkston asked. "What do they really expect South Korea to do?"


Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea