THAAD feature image Wikipedia

THAAD Will Not Protect South Korea


Elderly women held up signs reading “Illegal THAAD, back to the U.S!” as they marched, leaning on walking frames for support. 

Soseong-ri, their small village in South Korea, has become the center of a fight that could lay the groundwork for U.S.-Korean relations under Seoul’s next government. On Mar. 18, 5,000 people from across South Korea gathered in the village to protest the controversial deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system.

In July 2016, the US and South Korean governments announced plans to deploy the THAAD system in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang Province. But due to staunch opposition from local residents, the location was revised to a nearby golf course owned by the South Korean corporation Lotte, nestled between Soseong-ri in Seongju County and the city of Gimcheon.

Since Lotte handed its land over to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense on Feb. 27, Soseong-ri, just three kilometers from the golf course, has become the front line in the fight against the missile system. The deployment has already begun and the South’s defense ministry will soon transfer the land to United States Forces Korea (USFK).

Residents of Seongju and nearby Gimcheon have vowed to reverse the deployment. 

A “Peace Walk” in opposition to THAAD took place near the former Lotte Skyhill Seongju Country Club, the missile deployment site, on Mar. 18. 

Missile Defense Is No Defense

THAAD, made by the U.S. weapons firm Lockheed Martin, stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. It consists of a radar, used to surveil the missile activity of so-called enemy countries and detect incoming missiles, and interceptor missiles, which — in theory — can be launched to shoot down incoming missiles in mid-air.

The THAAD deployment in South Korea is supposed to counter threats from the North, but it is not unique. The U.S. has missile defense systems installed all over the world, mainly in Eastern Europe and Asia, and it is clear from their locations that their deployments are aimed at creating a network surrounding China and Russia.

If two adversarial countries have nuclear weapons, neither will attack the other, because it fears retaliation in the form of a nuclear counter-attack. Picture two people holding guns to each others’ heads. If one shoots first, the other will shoot back, and vice versa. The result is a perpetual standoff. This is known as mutually assured destruction, and proved an effective form of deterrence between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.

But to return to our analogy: If one gunman renders the other unable to fire, nothing deters him from pulling the trigger of his own gun. This is the ultimate aim of missile defense — to gain first strike advantage by removing the enemy’s ability to retaliate. 

U.S. missile defense systems are dangerous precisely because they enable a preemptive nuclear strike. This is why some argue that such systems are, in fact, offensive. It is also why, in 1972, the US and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), which limited the development of missile defense systems by both countries. But in 2002, after thirty years of relative stability guaranteed by mutually assured destruction, former U.S. President George W Bush walked away from the ABM Treaty.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst turned antiwar activist who was present at the signing of the ABM Treaty, said:

When president Bush came into office, he said, ‘I’m getting out of the ABM Treaty.’ That was a key moment in the strategic equation, because the ABM Treaty was the main source of strategic stability.

China, Russia and North Korea have all declared a policy of no first use, i.e. they will not use their nuclear weapons offensively, but the US has not done the same and reserves the right of preemptive strike.

No Protection for South Korea

According to JJ Suh, professor of Politics and International Affairs at International Christian University in Japan, the aim of the THAAD deployment in Seongju is not to protect South Korean citizens at all: “This system is designed to work at higher altitudes, higher than 45 kilometers. But most North Korean missiles [that would be used against South Korea] are short-range missiles that would fly below 45 kilometers.”

The THAAD system, Suh said, serves U.S. strategic interests in the region:

It can be… deployed against intermediate-range missiles from North Korea targeting Okinawa… or Guam. And so, it’s more plausible that the U.S. military wants to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea to protect [U.S.] soldiers and military assets in the region, rather than South Koreans in South Korea.

The THAAD radar, if stationed in South Korea, would also significantly expand the U.S.’s field of vision for spying on Chinese missile activity. For this reason, China has been staunchly opposed to the system’s deployment in South Korea.

But the South Korean people may pay a steep price for hosting THAAD, warned missile defense expert and MIT professor Ted Postol. The system, he says, will put South Korea in the path of a potential conflict between the U.S. and China. In the event of a confrontation between these two superpowers, says, China’s first target for a nuclear strike could be the THAAD radar in Seongju.

Costly but Ineffective

Postol also notes the THAAD system has not been proven to work. “The infrared seeker on THAAD interceptors is easily fooled by decoys,” he said. An enemy can launch several fake missiles along with the real one; they would shoot out in different directions to confuse the THAAD system, which would then have a hard time discerning and honing in on the real missile. According to Postol:

The infrared seeker on a THAAD interceptor cannot determine the distance from the target, and the THAAD radar cannot determine the precise azimuth of the target even if the decoys are only about 100 meters away from the real warhead.

Philip Coyle, Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, concurred. “After a very poor record with six test failures in a row in the 1990s, THAAD has successfully intercepted its targets in 11 out of 11 tests since 2006, but these tests are highly scripted to maximize the system’s chance of success.” And there is the problem of countering more than two projectiles. “We don’t know whether THAAD can intercept three incoming missiles, let alone hundreds,” he concludes.

Furthermore, according to Coyle, THAAD has blind spots. Its radar can only cover 120 degrees at a time, so North Korea could circumvent the system by launching a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from any point not covered by the radar.

Yet U.S. and South Korean taxpayers will end up paying for this system. One THAAD unit costs 1.3 billion U.S. dollars to produce. Then there is also the annual operation cost, which amounts to 22 million U.S. dollars. Neither the South Korean nor the U.S. government has said who will foot that bill, and the South’s Ministry of National Defense declined to tell Korea Exposé the total cost of THAAD deployment in Seongju, saying, “The numbers aren’t public.”

The Fight to Oppose THAAD

Soseong-ri protest against Thaad by Lee Hoon-ki
On Mar. 18, 5,000 people including elderly local residents gathered in Soseong-ri to protest the impending deployment of THAAD, a U.S.-made missile defense system. (Credit: Lee Hoon-ki)

Seongju is a small agricultural region of mostly elderly farmers, who had voted all their lives for the conservative party and had been staunch supporters of recently-impeached Park Geun-hye. When the government announced Seongju as the deployment site without any warning or consultation, they felt shocked and betrayed. Seongju resident Lee Hae-kyung said:

There are children here, there are schools here. Why do they have to put it here? There was no explanation from the government…They just suddenly announced they would put it here.

The people at the forefront of this fight are ordinary farmers, mostly women, who have never led rallies or protested government policies. They demanded the deployment decision be rescinded, and pro-government media were quick to label them North Korean sympathizers and paid outside agitators.

The government’s complete disregard for citizens’ concerns was what initially prompted so many of the residents to join the protests. But they also became worried about the potentially harmful effects of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the THAAD radar on their health and crops.

Even after the government changed the deployment site to the Lotte golf course, Seongju residents made clear that they were not just fighting to keep it out of their backyard but to oppose its deployment anywhere. They are joined by the residents of Gimcheon City, which lies next to the golf course, as well as the clergy of Won Buddhism — one of whose holy sites is nearby — and a national task force composed of peace, antiwar and other civic organizations.

Yoon Geum-soon, a resident of Seongju and the former national chairperson of the Korean Women Peasants Association, says the fight against THAAD is a fight to end the U.S.’ hold over South Korea’s foreign policy:

For over 60 years, the so-called US-ROK alliance has been based on our subordination. As long as our country does not have the autonomy to pursue its own foreign policy, the regional conflict will only worsen and we will suffer for it. We have no choice but to end this cycle.


Cover Image: The first of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test. (Source: U.S. Army via Wikipedia)

This article was written by Julian Cho and Hyun Lee. They are staff writers at ZoominKorea, an online resource on democracy and peace in Korea. 



ZoominKorea is an online resource for information on and critical analysis of Korean issues. It is a project of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea.


  1. The US want THAAD to protect their military stationed in the region and to protect South Korea and Japan given the North’s incessant provocations/illegal missile testing. If THAAD was to be removed, would the ‘unprotected’ 28,500 US military stationed in Korea pull out? To trust that North Korea would never shoot first as they have ‘promised’ is unfortunately not a believable proposition. This is a very complex – and expensive – situation.

    For some, THAAD will perform successfully in the South Korean context: see

  2. A lot of different lines of argument pursued here, but all of them point to the idea that South Korea is better off without THAAD. But how can that be the case? North Korea is developing a nuclear strike capability. Do they plan to use it? Probably not actively. But that isn’t the point: the point is to be able to blackmail South Korean governments into following the policy line set down by the North. Will that help China? Of course it will; and China can also put pressure on the North to try blackmailing SK governments into doing their will as well.

    THAAD makes the use of NK weapons less certain of success, therefore, it acts as a deterrent. Whose interest does it serve to remove THAAD? China and North Korea. So when you argue to remove a deterrent, keep in mind that you are arguing in favour of those needing to be deterred. Do any South Koreans want to be ruled by the system used in the North? This seems doubtful. So the logic compels us to ask why some South Koreans would want to argue in favour of North Korea’s having weapons against which the South has no credible deterrent threat.

    As to the technical components of the THAAD system, I believe the author of the article has cherry-picked “experts” to make it sound useless and fallible. In reality, it is likely to be as useful and reliable as any other weapons system, which is to say, it’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. No system will protect you 100%, and in an actual war scenario, there will be horrible casualties. But the North knows very well that it cannot win a war, so it prefers to develop its weapons as the major component in a political system of threat and blackmail. To counter that threat, THAAD is a reasonably good system, because it raises the potential costs to the aggressor and makes its benefits uncertain.

    Something is always better than nothing, and the chances are that THAAD will work as advertised most of the time. This is why both China and NK don’t want the South to deploy it, not because they really care about SK. The main point is this: if THAAD is not to be used, you can’t just argue against it. You have to show what the real alternatives are, and the article above signally fails to provide any reasonable or credible alternatives to its use.

  3. “Something is always better than nothing”

    It astounds me that an article like this – well researched, sensible – just receives war mongering responses from people who know absolutely nothing about Korea.

    For me, the most interesting thing about this article is the fact it alludes to a resistance among pro conservative grandmas, who supported the dictators daughter in the first place.

    That is wonderful!

    I’m so sick of everyone making assumptions about Korea as if it is an adjunct of America! It isn’t! It never has been either!

    “Something is better then nothing”! What a vacuous statement! Utterly daft! Mindless!

    Stop listening to the bullshit about Korea – north and south – and actually pay attention to the reality, which is complex and fascinating.

    I just wish that young Koreans would stand up to pricks like this! It’s time to engage with the horrors that have been forced upon you, and stop these ignorant people dictating the terms!

    Now that park guen hye is gone, I hope Koreans can finally have some sort of agency beyond “something”, because that is and was no choice at all!!!!!

    Good luck!

    I’ll be with you 100 per cent!

    • South Korean people have been dealt with “the horrors” for an half century already. The reality is North has been developing Nukes and their delivery system at all cost underneath in large part. And South’s having nukes has been prohibitive as US promises to provide a defense umbrella. THAAD does not provide the perfect umbrella from North’s nuke attack. It is definitely one of the valuable defense tools. It is so naive and alarming to see that some locals believe North won’t use the nuke against them.

  4. The acronym, THAAD, stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. And the “high altitude” in this case refers to a height of between 40-150km. Now that’s a lot higher than Mt. Everest which stands at under 9km. Considering that North Korean artillery shells do not fly that high and millions of South Koreans, including the residents of Seoul, live within the reach of those shells, how THAAD would protect them in case of war should be a great mystery to any rational mind. THAAD may be useful against North Korean missile launches aimed at US troops and installations on Japanese mainland, Okinawa or Guam. Or not. Against multiple, simultaneous launch of short or intermediate range missiles, those poor heat-seeking THAAD projectiles may get confused and lost in space. The system is also of no use against submarine-launched missiles that are fired at close range, say off the coast of Japan. THAAD’s greatest utility may lie in its ability to pry deep into China’s military activities. So why wouldn’t Chinese get mad at the US for installing such a devise so close to its territory and at South Korea for allowing that to happen? Would American military leaders be happy about China installing a similar system in Cuba in the future, so close to the United States Central Command in Tampa, Florida? The combination of ignorance on the part of Korean military establishment that is enamored of American military hardware and the longstanding subservient posture of the Korean political class vis-a-vis the US power must have conspired to creat this witch’s brew. The incoming president, whoever that be, should probe the process that led to the decision to rush the installation of the THAAD system in the waning days of the discredited Park regime and reexamine the system’s utility and purpose.
    What’s at stake for South Koreans if far greater than the loss of economic opportunities in relations to Chinese consumption of Korean goods and services. What good does the decision to install this new and unproven missile defense system on Korean soil serve or whom does it benefit? Obviously, the poor farmers of Soseong-ri would be among the first victims of the incoming missiles from the North or, more likely, from China. Korea, both the North and the South, will become the battleground where the US and China will test their fancy military hardware while laying waste to the whole peninsula. One must consider when it was the last time the US fought a war on its own soil? Korean political and civil establishments should take a page from the Americans and do everything they can to prevent the repeat of the Korean War which killed ten percent of the Korean population at the time? The key to lasting peace, and perchance prosperity, on the peninsula is to disassociate itself from hegemonic rivalry between the US, China, Japan and Russia and espouse neutrality and pursue rapprochement with the North. If the Germans can do it, so can Koreans.

    • Hello, first the Koreans are hardly subservient to the US. The Americans have offered to leave numerous times over the years and the Koreans always concluded they wanted the American troops here to stay. One the Korea’s biggest fears is that Trump will drop support the ROK. Remember THAAD is not a heat seeking system but rather uses infrared, an entirely different system. North Korean subs are not much of a threat, they are noisy outdated garbage barges that in a wartime situation would be detected quite easily, especially by Japan which has a submarine fleet almost at par with the US. China is the cause of this mess. They wish to maintain a buffer state that is hanging a dagger over Korea. Thus the Chinese shouldn’t blubber when Korea (Japan and the US) step up and take their defense into their own hands. If China wishes for the ROK to back down on THAAD, they need to put their fat little lap dog on a shorter leash.

  5. As mentioned, THAAD is meant for missiles of higher altitude and range. Newer North Korean missiles do just that. The Norks can adjust the trajectory of missiles to attack South Korea from a very high arc and thus higher altitude out of range of current Patriot systems in South Korea. This would leave the southern end of the Korean peninsula unprotected. Second (again as mentioned) many of the US assets that protect Korea are not in Korea at all. Okinawa and Guam have strategic assets that protect Korea. THAADs X-Band radar is a great system to monitor North Korean activity especially if deployed and interfaced with a similar system in Japan. Japan, Korea and the US could share logistical military data on suspicious movements by North Korea and China. Currently Chinese missiles already target Okinawa so if this upsets the Chicoms…to bad. It’s not just Korea that wants THAAD it is also Japan that says it all. THAAD can be used in conjuction with Aegis systems and naval vessels can be dispatched to the Sea of Japan (East Sea). This could be used to intercept any long range tests by the Norks and hamper the progress of North Korea ICBM technology.

  6. Majority of the South Korean population is highly against THAAD (about 50-55% of the population) THAAD is not going to protect South Korea in any way, it’s just going to escalate military tensions and stop global peace. I really don’t the see the point of deploying this technology in Seongju, the South Korean government should approach North Korea in a mature way plus do you really think North Korean weapons are going to reach Seoul? Their weapons are from the old cold war times, the only recent things they have developed is nuclear missiles which are very unstable and have failed a lot.

    I have seen so much protests against American troops in South Korea, there is quite a big amount of anti-Americanism in South Korea, so why doesn’t the South Korean government listen to it’s own people, it’s a democratic country and a democratic government should do what the people what them to do. THAAD has already started to impact South Korea, especially the economy, so many LOTTE stores in China have closed down and tourism has been at an all time low. Many Korean entertainment industries rely on China and that has also been restricted and plus China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, this is going to affect the South Korean economy by huge amounts. THAAD has also affected the environment around Seongju, I’m pretty sure all military technologies affect the environment surrounding it no matter what country it is yet the Defence Ministry of South Korea says it won’t affect the people living in the area.

    It’s not just South Korea that has THAAD, both Guam and Okinawa have THAAD as well. There is also a huge anti-American stance in Okinawa as well, many of the people living in Okinawa want the American troops to be expelled out of the region but the American government refuse to, I’m not too quite sure about Guam. Plus Okinawa wasn’t even part of Japan to being with, Okinawa used to be a sovereign nation but then illegally invaded by both Japanese and American troops.

    I really hope the next South Korean president will remove THAAD or rebuke it as it already has affected international affairs with other countries, but I can’t force it since I’m not South Korean nor am I part of the South Korean government. THAAD is not going to do any good, it is just going to stop global peace and create more tensions with other countries.

  7. Thaad is to defend US troops. The Skoreans are naïve to believe the US
    will use nw .Once upon atime the US could freely threaten the use of nw.
    Not anymore. Any use of nw will draw response.The thaad is to provide protection.
    You see the US is used to fighting its way ie its planes can attack with immunity and the US homeland is out of bounds. Even if they were to destroy NK,Seoul will be razed to the ground.As for China ,the US can send the Chinese to the stone age,but the hefty price serves as a deterrent and it will get worse as China becomes stronger.

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