Controversy Over "Three Noes" on THAAD and National Interest
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Controversy Over "Three Noes" on THAAD and National Interest


APLN Vice Chair Moon Chung-in discusses the ongoing dispute between China and South Korea over THAAD deployment and clarifies the South Korean position on this issue. The original post is available on the Hankyoreh website here.


The “three noes” never actually existed — they were rather sensible explanations offered by the South Korean government to China.

Xing Haiming, China’s ambassador to South Korea, kicked a hornet’s nest when he objected to presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl’s remarks about the THAAD missile defense system.

Yoon, former Prosecutor General of South Korea, said in a newspaper interview on July 15 that the deployment of THAAD interceptor batteries at US military bases in the country was “manifestly a matter of our sovereignty” and that “if China wants to call for the removal of THAAD, it ought to remove long-range radars located close to our national border.”

In a rebuttal printed in the same newspaper the following day, Xing said that THAAD had “seriously damaged China’s national security interests” and that “the Chinese public feel anxious” about it while completely dismissing the threat of China’s radar systems.

Yoon’s original remarks contained some factual errors. While it’s true that the THAAD deployment is a matter of South Korean sovereignty, the system is designed to track and intercept North Korea missile attacks, not to counter a threat from China. That’s the official position of both the South Korean and American governments.

Xing’s attitude was also problematic. It would have been sufficient for the Chinese embassy’s public relations office to release a statement clarifying the facts. But instead, the ambassador penned a column including inflammatory remarks such as “South Korea-China relations are not an accessory to South Korea-US relations,” which only gives ammunition to figures who harbor anti-Chinese sentiments.

But it was President Moon Jae-in who ended up taking the flak. Critics of the Moon administration said the whole problem dates back to the agreement about the “three noes” on THAAD that the South Korean and Chinese governments supposedly reached in October 2017. Those critics contend that the “three noes” were a disgraceful abnegation of South Korea’s foreign policy and autonomy that clearly illustrate the Moon administration’s strategic ambiguity on the US and China and that will have catastrophic consequences for South Korean national security down the road.

Let’s review the situation. Around that time, Seoul held two informal meetings with Beijing with the hope of normalizing their relationship and convincing China to call off the retaliatory measures it had imposed over the THAAD deployment.

The Chinese reportedly raised four points during those meetings. They asked South Korea to immediately remove the deployed THAAD batteries, voiced their opposition to deploying more THAAD batteries, expressed concerns about South Korea taking part in a US-led missile defense system in Northeast Asia, and took issue with the possibility of South Korea joining a military alliance with the US and Japan that was aimed at China.

The South Koreans responded to these four points as follows. First, the deployment of the THAAD batteries was designed to respond to North Korea’s military threat and that deployment couldn’t be reversed because South Korea and the US had already reached an agreement about it.

Second, deploying more batteries wasn’t feasible for several reasons, so the Chinese didn’t need to worry about that.

Third, South Korean governments on both sides of the political spectrum had been steadily pursuing a homegrown missile defense system since the presidency of Kim Dae-jung, and South Korea didn’t feel the need to join a US-led missile defense system in the region both for reasons of cost and efficacy.

As for the question of a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan, South Korea would maintain its current security cooperation framework, namely, a military alliance with the US and trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan. But a military alliance with Japan wasn’t on the table because that would require Japan to revise its “peace constitution.”

As this suggests, South Korea would have used these informal meetings to respond to China’s issues and provide any necessary explanations. That means that the “three noes” never actually existed — that was simply a term concocted by the media.

As some have pointed out, any agreement would have been formalized as a document or announced in a joint press conference, as is customary. Furthermore, the explanations offered by the South Korean government were extremely sensible ones grounded in its current policy.

Where precisely in those explanations are the humiliating elements that supposedly undermine South Korea’s sovereignty and independence?

What’s particularly baffling is the attitude of those who take the Chinese language about “agreements or promises” at face value and use that as grounds for criticizing the current administration.

In addition, it was those very diplomatic efforts that paved the way for Moon to visit China that December and for China to greatly mitigate, if not entirely withdraw, the sanctions it had imposed in retaliation for THAAD.

The same is true about the debate over strategic ambiguity. Showing “strategic clarity” by letting the US deploy more THAAD batteries, actively participating in a US-led missile defense system, and forming a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan isn’t necessary to guarantee South Korean national security or ensure a horizontal relationship with China.

Furthermore, is there really something ambiguous about the government’s policy of strengthening its alliance with the US while maintaining a strategic cooperative partnership with China? Maintaining the status quo that way might be the right choice, viewed in terms of the national interest.

Rushing to instigate hostile relations with China through divisive diplomacy isn’t desirable not only for economic reasons but also because it would impede efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and create peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.

We need to think long and hard about whether overt calls for a hostile policy toward China are actually in the national interest and whether politicizing the debate about the US and China’s rivalry is an appropriate course of action.

Image: The U.S. Army – Ralph Scott/Missile Defense Agency/U.S. Department of Defense, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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