THAAD and China

3-30-16    On Feb. 7, the United States and South Korea decided to begin official discussions on deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula.  In response, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong said that deployment of the system could destroy the Beijing-Seoul relationship “in an instant.”  The floor leader of South Korea’s ruling Saenuri party, Won Yoo-cheol, called Qiu’s remarks “rude,” saying that they “disregarded the sovereignty and the security of the Republic of Korea.”  While some analysts see China’s blunt position on this issue as a way to drive a wedge in the US-ROK alliance, Beijing’s motivations are defensive.  China’s leadership is concerned about THAAD at the strategic level and sees the system as part of a broader US strategy to contain China.

THAAD in South Korea does not pose a direct threat to China.  THAAD is an anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase, meaning that the system cannot intercept missiles during their boost or mid-course phase.  THAAD on the Korean Peninsula, therefore, cannot intercept Chinese missiles heading toward the United States.  The X-band radar that is part of the system would be positioned and configured in “terminal mode” to intercept missiles originating from North Korea, instead of being used to scan deep into China. Deploying THAAD would not directly affect China’s nuclear second-strike capability vis-à-vis the US. Instead, the system would complement the Patriot system already in South Korea by adding an additional layer of protection and bolster deterrence against North Korea by increasing uncertainty of its capabilities and complicating its security calculations.


3-7-17    Instead, many experts argue that China’s anger over THAAD has less to do with the missiles than with the sophisticated radar capabilities included in the system.  These radars could be used to track China’s own missile systems, potentially giving the United States a major advantage in any future conflict with China.  Some Chinese analysts argue that THAAD itself is of only limited use against North Korea anyway, as it would not be able to take out short-range missiles and artillery that do not reach high altitudes, hinting that the radar may be the real reason for the deployment.

More broadly, Beijing is concerned that the United States is hoping to use both South Korea and Japan to contain China in the future.  “If South Korea insists on becoming a US puppet, China will have to act against it,” the nationalist state newspaper Global Times wrote in an editorial early this year.

Chinese reaction appears to be moving to hurt South Korea economically.  Beijing has already placed restrictions on Korean businesses that operate in China, including shutting down stores of Lotte, a South Korean conglomerate that offered a golf course as land for THAAD use.

More measures are expected.  Chinese travel agencies are stopping the sale of tickets to South Korea, and there have been growing calls in China to boycott South Korean products and even cancel tours by K-pop stars.  Such moves carry significant weight. South Korea has grown increasingly dependent economically on China in recent years. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and the value of its exports to the country were $142 billion in 2014–more than twice the value of its exports to the United States.

Chinese pressure also comes at a time of political transition in South Korea.  Scandal has sidelined President Park Geun-hye, who is expected to find out this week whether she will be impeached.   And Moon Jae-in, the leading liberal candidate to replace her, has suggested he may reconsider the THAAD deployment.


3-25-17   Chinese opposition to South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system is less about missiles than about an ongoing effort to weaken—and ideally demolish—the United States’ network of formal and informal alliances in Asia that has underpinned the regional order for the last seventy years.

The THAAD controversy that heated up in 2016 once deployment became likely displays a familiar Chinese modus operandi:  First, pick a fight over an allegedly offensive act. Next, follow up with vitriol and veiled threats, and then inflict economic pressure—while making bland denials or declaring it the spontaneous reaction of the righteously offended Chinese people.


4-27-17   China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN the Chinese government opposes any form of cyber attack, and fights against all form of hacker activity.   “This position is consistent, clear, and serious,” it said in a statement.

The statement reiterated China’s opposition to THAAD and called on the US and South Korea to halt its deployment.  On Wednesday, the top US commander in the Pacific said the defense system would be operational in days.
When asked if the group could be North Koreans posing as Chinese hackers, Hultquist said his team has gathered plenty of evidence to prove the group’s origins, including their use of the Chinese language.  “We’ve known these actors for several years now and we’ve watched their activities.”…
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly denied any knowledge of restrictions being placed on South Korean businesses over THAAD.

Chinese interest in South Korean culture has naturally prompted a tourism boom.  Since 2013, nearly half of all tourists to South Korea have been from China.  From Seoul’s central Myeongdong neighborhood to the scenic southern resort island of Jeju, Chinese tour groups are ubiquitous.

Or rather, they have been.  On March 2, Beijing announced it would ban all group travel to South Korea as part of its response to South Korea’s decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system.  To Seoul, THAAD is a necessary deterrent to an increasingly unstable and belligerent North Korea. To Beijing, the deployment of THAAD puts the system’s highly sophisticated radar in uncomfortable proximity to Chinese soil and must be stopped.


4-21-17   Chinese government officials have been very vocal in their opposition to the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, raising concerns that the anti-ballistic missile system’s sensitive radar sensors could be used for espionage.  And according to researchers at the information security firm FireEye, Chinese hackers have transformed objection to action by targeting South Korean military, government, and defense industry networks with an increasing number of cyberattacks.  Those attacks included a denial of service attack against the website of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which the South Korean government says originated from China.

FireEye’s director of cyber-espionage analysis John Hultquist told the Wall Street Journal that FireEye had detected a surge in attacks against South Korean targets from China since February, when South Korea announced it would deploy THAAD in response to North Korean missile tests.  The espionage attempts have focused on organizations associated with the THAAD deployment.  They have included “spear-phishing” e-mails carrying attachments loaded with malware along with “watering hole” attacks that put exploit code to download malware onto websites frequented by military, government, and defense industry officials.

FireEye claims to have found evidence that the attacks were staged by two groups connected to the Chinese military.  One, dubbed Tonto Team by FireEye, operates from the same region of China as previous North Korean hacking operations.  The other is known among threat researchers as APT10, or “Stone Panda”—the same group believed to be behind recent espionage efforts against US companies lobbying the Trump administration on global trade.  These groups have also been joined in attacks by two “patriotic hacking” groups not directly tied to the Chinese government, Hultquist told the Journal—including one calling itself “Denounce Lotte Group” targeting the South Korean conglomerate Lotte.  Lotte made the THAAD deployment possible through a land swap with the South Korean government.


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