Trump to North Korea: Feel the power of our fully operational THAAD

That suggested meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un would provide lots to discuss, especially in regard to everyone’s new toys in the region. The newest, the American anti-ballistic system THAAD, just went operational even as protests came from both sides of the 38th Parallel and above the Yalu River:

A U.S. antimissile defense system recently installed in South Korea is now operational, a U.S. official said Monday, in the latest sign of an enhanced U.S. response to threats from North Korea.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations overseas, said the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, an American-made system to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles, had reached initial operating capability.

“Initial operating capacity” appears to refer to the effective range of both its radar and its missiles. As Reuters explains, the THAAD system is designed to work most effectively within a 200-kilometer radius, the range of its PAC-3 missiles. From its location in South Korea, that puts Seoul on the edge of its effective defensive range, and does not overlap much or at all into North Korea. The THAAD system will provide no defense for Japan and its US military bases, for instance, which will have to use other missile-defense systems if the time comes.

However, its radar has much greater range. In its most robust deployment, THAAD’s forward-based radar has a 2000-kilometer range, which covers much of eastern China, including Beijing, China’s naval HQ, and most notably its Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center. It also extends into eastern Russia, which has Moscow unhappy about the installation as well. THAAD will give the US an unprecedented land-based peek into China and Russia, which is indeed part of the motivation. At the very least, it puts more pressure on both to force Kim into retreating on both his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development programs by upping the ante on the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, it also ups the ante in South Korea and its upcoming presidential election. The expedited installation and activation of THAAD has become a significant campaign issue, and might wind up producing a government that will force the US to retreat instead. Left-leaning Moon Jae-in has already implied that the US sped up the installation to interfere in South Korea’s politics, and warned that the moves had stoked distrust of the US:

“It is not desirable for the [caretaker] South Korean government to deploy THAAD hastily at this politically sensitive time, with the presidential election approaching, and without going through the democratic process, an environmental assessment or a public hearing,” said Moon, sitting on the floor in a Korean restaurant after an evening rally in Seongnam, south of Seoul.

“Would it happen this way in the United States? Could the administration make a unilateral decision without following democratic procedures, without ratification or agreement by Congress?”

Privately, Moon aides say they are “furious” about what they see as the expedited installation of THAAD. U.S. Forces Korea said the deployment is in line with plans to have the system operational as soon as possible. …

“If South Korea can have more time to process this matter democratically, the U.S. will gain a higher level of trust from South Koreans and therefore the alliance between the two nations will become even stronger,” Moon said.

The election is one week away, and so far analysts expect Moon to win handily. Two weeks ago, a dark horse candidate who had some political resemblance to Trump emerged — Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul offering a more centrist platform.  Ahn might have a more friendly stance toward the US, but the recent provocative moves from Washington (especially with the threat to force Seoul to pay for THAAD) might have transformed that into a liability. The aggressive new policy toward North Korea might pay off with China, who wants to avoid a confrontation, but it could end up backfiring on the US by forcing the upcoming election to become a referendum on the US-South Korea relationship. We might end up cutting our legs out from under us in the end.