Mar-a-lago menu: THAAD and Kim Jong-UN; Powerpoints and hot air
By Donald Kirk
From the outset, the idea of implanting a Star Wars weapon capable of zapping an enemy missile 150 kilometers above the earth’s surface had to be controversial.
The real problem from the South Korean viewpoint initially was, what for ― what we really need are short and mid-range missiles for not only countering whatever North Korea is throwing at us but also delivering body blows to targets on North Korea soil. South Koreans hemmed and hawed with visiting American potentates, from cabinet-level personages to military officers to corporate types and engineers, and even a physicist or two, all laden with charts, graphics, power-point and information sheets showing why South Korea needed THAAD for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
(Parenthetical note: At first the “T” in THAAD stood for “Theater,” but someone in Washington decided that “theater” might raise paranoid eyebrows elsewhere, that is, in China and Russia. They had that right. Good thinking, guys, though apparently “terminal” hasn’t made anyone happy either. Maybe it seems too much like “terminate,” as in that old CIA term, “terminate with extreme prejudice.” Why couldn’t they just have settled on “HAAD” for “High Altitude Area Defense.” That would have gotten the idea across just fine.)
Ok, back to topic. So after hearing enough of all that, over too many lunches, dinners, drinks and coffees, the South Koreans said, Okay, maybe you guys know what you’re doing, we got the idea, we’ll go for it, and THAAD was on the way. The fact that it’s here, being implanted at this moment amid the verdant fairways and manicured greens of that Lotte golf course well south of Seoul, does not mean it’s worth the gazillion dollars it’s costing.
(Second parenthetical note: No one really knows how many billion dollars this baby is costing American tax payers. Brings to mind what a U.S. senator said years ago talking about foreign aid. “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” As I see it, if they ever fire one missile or one volley, we, tax-paying Americans, are down another $100 million. Such is the price of freedom, freedom is not free.)
Okay, returning to the narrative. The real question about THAAD is not what China or Russia say, which is balderdash since they know it’s not aimed at them, but whether it will work. Is there any guarantee one of those hyper-kinetic, super-high-flying, beautifully sculpted, silver-plated chrome projectiles will come anywhere near the target?
And who’s testing, anyway? Are they going to shoot a couple up from the Lotte golf course, the same way North Korea test-fires mid-and-long-range missiles, soaring way over the east coast into Japanese waters? How else will anyone know if these missiles or “counter-missiles,” in the preferred vernacular will hit anything if they don’t fire a shot or two or maybe a few more?
But no one’s going to do that. South Korea’s next president may say, THAAD’s here, let it stay where it is, and go on to other more mundane topics, but you can bet he’s not going to say, Oh, now let’s make sure it works, how about some test shots just to raise our confidence level? No, the next president, if he’s not so inundated by anti-THAAD protests as to be unable to sleep comfortably in the Blue House, will put this one on the back burner: Let the Americans have their toy, forget it.
In fact, we may never have a clue as to whether THAAD is a great idea or totally absurd. That’s because Kim Jong-Un, while he gets his jollies “ordering” missile shots, cannot be so dumb as to fire a real live missile in anger at South Korea. The crews minding THAAD will never have the opportunity to prove, Look, we’re right, you really needed this thing.
Most likely, after THAAD has been sitting there a few years, the Americans will have another gigantic gizmo to sell. Not to worry. The only ones hurting are those of us who have to foot the bill for these games.
Maybe Donald Trump can add the price to China’s outsized trade surplus: Hey China, you made us pay for this by not stopping North Korea’s nuke program. Isn’t that what he’s telling Xi Jinping over chop suey and fortune cookies in Mar-a-Lago?
Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Northeast Asia for decades. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org