U.S. Fast-Tracks Missile Defense System To South Korea, Drawing China's Ire : Parallels The THAAD missile defense system will go up in South Korea to help defend against North Korea's missile program. But it's causing a geopolitical tussle.

U.S. Fast-Tracks Missile Defense System To South Korea, Drawing China's Ire

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North Korea's missile tests and the United States' response have stirred debate among North Korea's neighbors. The latest missile shots into the sea were seen as a provocation. And a day later, the United States said it had started deploying new missile defenses. Sounds good, right? Well, the U.S. move is of intense interest in South Korea, where we find NPR's Elise Hu, and an annoyance in China, which is where we find NPR's Rob Schmitz.

Hi, guys.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So, Elise, what does this system do for a U.S. ally like South Korea?

HU: Yeah, it's called THAAD, which is an acronym for a missile defense system designed to shoot down both short- and intermediate-range missiles midair, kind of like shooting a bullet with a bullet.

Now, the U.S. argues that it's purely defensive and - that given North Korea's growing missile program, that THAAD belongs in South Korea. It has always - supposed to be operational before the end of this year.

INSKEEP: OK, well, nobody wants to get hit with a North Korean missile, Rob Schmitz. So why does China care?

SCHMITZ: Well, what the Chinese are worried about is THAAD's radar system. It's a sophisticated radar that could be used to track China's own missile systems hundreds of miles away inside of China. So for China, that's a problem. It doesn't want the U.S. military to know where Chinese missiles are located because it would give the U.S. a major advantage in the event of a conflict with China.

The Chinese are also concerned about THAAD because they believe it wouldn't be very useful against a North Korean strike anyway because it doesn't have the capability to take out North Korea's short-range missiles and artillery that cannot reach high altitude.

So the Chinese are questioning the real reason for THAAD. They're hinting that it will actually be used to track China's missile systems and help contain China.

INSKEEP: Oh, and there's always been debate about just how effective missile defenses are. So China's worried about information that might be gathered here. But what can China do?

SCHMITZ: Well, China's first retaliatory strike has been economic. The THAAD system was deployed on a golf course in South Korea owned by the Lotte conglomerate. And when word got out, China's government shut down 23 of Lotte's 115 stores in China, saying all of them were suddenly in violation of fire codes.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SCHMITZ: So today we heard news that...

INSKEEP: I'm still hung up on the idea of, like, trying to hit my seven iron bended around this missile that's sitting there on the golf course...

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Like a new obstacle. Go on, Rob. Go on. Go on.

SCHMITZ: And so today, there was some more news. Authorities here in Shanghai have shut down a chocolate factory that's a joint venture between Lotte and Hershey, the first American company that's gotten pulled into this. Chinese travel agencies have stopped selling tickets to South Korea. There's been calls to boycott South Korean products, and even K-pop music. So, you know, some of this sounds a little silly, but China is South Korea's largest trading partner. And this threatens to do some damage.

INSKEEP: OK, so it's now harder to hear "Gangnam Style" in China. I get that.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: But, Elise Hu, what does South Korea think about all this?

HU: Well, they are understandably anxious about all of this. This has caused widespread condemnation. And policymakers aren't really sure what to do next. Some have called for Korea to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Others are calling for more restraint. But honestly, how all this plays out for trade between Korea and China is an open question right now, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, just to review, we've got this missile defense system on a golf course. It's owned by a company that's now being penalized inside China. People in South Korea are upset. It's a huge deal. And, Elise, in the middle of this, isn't South Korea about to change presidents possibly?

HU: That's right. So the current president has already been impeached by lawmakers. She finds out whether she's officially removed tomorrow. So despite an original timeline of deploying THAAD sometime this year, the U.S. abruptly announced this week that it already started deploying the THAAD system just days ago. So now it's saying that this THAAD system could be operational by April, several months sooner than expected.

And so there's a case to be made that the deployment is actually being fast-tracked ahead of a new Korean administration. And if that administration is more liberal, it's likely to be opposed to or skeptical about THAAD. But of course, you can also make the case that this effort's going faster than expected because North Korea has certainly stepped up its missile tests in recent weeks.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul. Thanks very much.

HU: You bet.

INSKEEP: And we also heard from NPR's Rob Schmitz. He's in Shanghai. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: You're welcome.

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