Missile defense opens up rift between China, South Korea
SEOUL/BEIJING — Mutual suspicion is taking hold of China and South Korea as the U.S. readies to deploy a missile defense system to its East Asian ally, a move Beijing sees as a national security threat.South Korea, which argues that the system is a necessary counter to a dangerous North Korea, believes China is retaliating by restricting cultural exchanges and visa issuance.Meanwhile, South Korea is trying to reassure nervous residents about Terminal High Altitude Area Defense amid fears of health risks associated with the land-based system’s powerful radar — a danger that the government denies.Defense Minister Han Min-koo on Wednesday met with community leaders and residents in Seongju County, which has been designated to host the installation. Seoul is willing to consider alternative sites within the county, Han told them, but he indicated that Seoul is eager to move ahead with the deployment.Han described basing THAAD on South Korean soil as “a minimal self-defense measure to keep our people safe.” But the Chinese government, aided by state- and party-run media, has railed against the move on the grounds that the system’s radar could gather intelligence on China’s own missiles, even deep within its territory.The People’s Daily accused South Korean policymakers of making a specious link between THAAD and national security, at the risk of destabilizing the entire region.For their part, South Korean media have reported little acts of Chinese “retribution,” such as the cancellation of events in China featuring Korean stars. A person familiar with a major South Korean talent agency, with obvious unease, said it is watching developments carefully. South Korea also says that rules for obtaining tourist or commercial visas to visit China have become more strict.Even as feelings between China and South Korea turn cold, Beijing seems to be trying to rekindle its recently troubled relationship with ally Pyongyang.Trade between China and North Korea rose 9% on the year in June after falling by the same margin in April, according to economic research firm CEIC, which based its estimates on Chinese customs statistics. Foreign ministers from the two countries met for the first time in two years last month in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. And in a sign that Beijing may be pulling back from cooperation with Washington and Seoul on restraining the North’s saber rattling, China thwarted a United Nations Security Council statement condemning recent ballistic missile launches. The Chinese leadership seems to think economic and diplomatic pressure will persuade the U.S. and South Korea to cancel the THAAD deployment, slated for the end of 2017. With the Communist Party’s next once-in-five-year congress coming in the fall of 2017, party leader Xi Jinping, China’s president, is intent on tightening his grip on the military, which bristles at the idea of having THAAD on the horizon. As such, Xi has little room for compromise.