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(EDITORIAL from the Korea Times on March 8)

All News 07:02 March 08, 2016

THAAD rethinking
Strategic ambiguity needs to be brought back

South Korea and the United States finally began their discussions last week aimed at testing the feasibility of deploying Washington's advanced missile interceptor here after an unexpected delay of two weeks. There had been speculation that the U.S. and China engaged in bartering ― the former shelving the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in exchange for the latter's acceptance of new tougher sanctions against North Korea for its missile and nuclear tests.

Neither Seoul, Washington nor Beijing has admitted to this deal. Still, the United Nations has generated the most punitive package in 20 years since the North's weapons of mass destruction became an international issue once again. Both the U.S. and the South have still maintained that the sanctions and THAAD are two separate issues, although it is not hard to circumstantially disprove their assertions. And few would expect the allies to give as much urgency to the deployment as they would have before the U.N. sanctions.

It would be all the better if Seoul and Washington procrastinate to the point of putting THAAD back into the category of strategic ambiguity. There are three good reasons why.

First, THAAD has proved to be a trump card that can be used to gain leverage with China and, as long as Seoul is not committed to its deployment, it will hold that effect for at least the time being. It's worth remembering that no pleas or threats have persuaded Beijing to risk its ties with Pyongyang but the threat of the THAAD, more specifically its intrusive radar system, forced a change of heart in the giant, making the latest U.N. sanctions possible. To borrow from the old Chinese sage Sun Tzu, the author of "The Art of War," subduing the enemy without a fight is the mark of a great general's acumen.

Second, it is pivotal to maintain a good relationship with China, Seoul's biggest trading partner and the regional power that is emerging as a superpower competing with the U.S. for global hegemony. Of course, it doesn't mean that Korea will pursue better links with China at the cost of its alliance with the U.S., whose importance has been proven beyond any doubt again during the North's latest challenge.

For the eventual unification, Korea needs to assuage China's fears about the collapse of the North as its buffer against outside forces and a possible subsequent refugee crisis, ultimately enabling it to trust Seoul as an alternative. At the same time, it would offer Korea the chance to overcome its serious inferiority complex, ingrained in the national consciousness from damage suffered through centuries as the result of its geography ― being sandwiched among big powers. The new role Korea has as a middle power is that it should seek to become an honest broker that can coordinate in the clash of interests between the U.S., China and Japan.

Third, in order to take on this new role, THAAD deployment would be burdensome because it would put Korea squarely at the center of the U.S.-led Missile Defense (MD), a cold-war era concept that is aimed at protecting the U.S. from ballistic missile attacks. Interestingly, the U.S. is still sticking to remnants of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or Star Wars, which forced the Soviet Union to engage in an arms race and eventually succumb. The North's WMD programs are providing a fresh impetus to this old idea.

Now is the time for Seoul to sit on, sleep on, stand on and do whatever it wants on THAAD.

Except for making a decision on its deployment.

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