[On Thursday, South Korea and the United States began talks in Seoul to finalize details of the deployment of the so-called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System, or Thaad, according to the South’s Foreign Ministry. Both countries say the system’s purpose is to defend the South against North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear threat, but China has objected strongly to the system, which it sees as an American attempt to encircle it.]
By Jane Perlez and Choe Sang-Hun
Police officers and soldiers in South Korea on Wednesday guarding the site where
an American missile defense system is set to be deployed.
Credit Kim Joon-beom/Yonhap, via Reuters
BEIJING — The Chinese government is ratcheting up pressure on South Korea over its plans to deploy an American missile defense system, with the state-controlled news media urging the public to boycott South Korean retail products and threatening diplomatic and even military repercussions.
China’s latest pronouncements follow months of not-so-subtle punitive measures that have already taken a toll on the South Korean economy, including an unofficial ban on Korean television shows and pop stars. The campaign risks a backlash in South Korea even as Beijing’s relations with North Korea have also grown strained — a sign of how recent advances in the North’s nuclear program have put China in a bind and are upsetting the regional security balance.
On Thursday, South Korea and the United States began talks in Seoul to finalize details of the deployment of the so-called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System, or Thaad, according to the South’s Foreign Ministry. Both countries say the system’s purpose is to defend the South against North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear threat, but China has objected strongly to the system, which it sees as an American attempt to encircle it.
No date has been set for the system’s deployment, but the Pentagon said on Wednesday that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wanted it in place “as soon as feasible.” Military experts said the United States could use C-17 transport aircraft to quickly move the system’s truck-mounted launchers, interceptors, radar, fire control units and support equipment to South Korea.
China responded with anger when South Korea agreed in July to accept the Thaad system, and it has made its displeasure known as plans have moved toward the final stages in recent days.
An outspoken Chinese general, Luo Yuan, now retired, recommended a tough series of responses in an article on Thursday, going so far as to suggest a military strike against the missile system. “We could conduct a surgical hard-kill operation that would destroy the target, paralyzing it and making it unable to hit back,” General Luo wrote in the Global Times, a state-run newspaper that often features strident, nationalist views.
“Since the United States, Japan and South Korea choose not to respect China’s major security concerns, China does not need to be a gentleman on everything,” the general wrote. “We must not undermine our own security interests while respecting the security interests of others.”
People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper that is often considered the official voice of the leadership, said in its international edition this week that China should consider a “de facto” severance of diplomatic ties with South Korea.
It said in a commentary that China should take “political and military measures” against South Korea and that it should consider coordinating with Russia in dealing with what it called the “U.S.-Japan-South Korea antimissile network.” The paper was referring in part to statements by Japan that it might consider using Thaad as a defense against North Korea.
China has said that the Thaad system would threaten its nuclear deterrent capacity. It said the system’s powerful radar would make it much easier for the United States to detect Chinese missiles and would give the American military much more time to intercept them.
Chinese state news outlets have also suggested a consumer boycott of South Korean products. Much of China’s anger has been borne by Lotte, a South Korean conglomerate that provided the government with land for the Thaad deployment in a deal that was finalized this week. Lotte has stores and shopping malls across China, and modest groups of mostly older Chinese held protests at the company’s outlets in several cities on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Lotte website serving Chinese shoppers was hacked, the company said. On Thursday, another hacking attack shut down its duty-free shop’s website for several hours. Lotte also said that some construction had been stopped by the Chinese authorities on the grounds that it had failed a fire inspection.
In recent months, popular South Korean stars have been denied visas to perform in China, and South Korean TV shows have been blocked from Chinese video streaming websites. Many in South Korea say they believe those actions are in retaliation for the Thaad issue, though China has denied any link.
One of the musicians denied a visa was Sumi Jo, a coloratura soprano who has toured China almost every year for the past decade. Her brother, Jay Jo, said that she had been unable this year to get the government-approved invitation letter required for an entry visa.
“As soon as the opportunities reopen, she will resume her concerts in China,” Mr. Jo said. “But right now, we have no idea when that will happen.”
Trade experts said Beijing might be reluctant to take more extreme economic measures. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by far, but South Korea is also China’s fourth-largest, and Beijing would probably be reluctant to damage those ties during the current economic slowdown.
South Korean politicians have said that Washington wants the Thaad system deployed by mid-May, when many expect presidential elections to be held in the South. President Park Geun-hye was impeached by South Korea’s legislature in December over a corruption scandal, and she awaits a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court on whether she will be permanently removed from office. The court’s decision is expected in the coming weeks, and if it rules against her, a new president will be elected 60 days later.
South Korea’s progressive opposition is seen as having a strong chance of winning the presidency should that election be held. Opposition politicians have expressed skepticism about the Thaad system, and some have charged that the United States wants to rush the deployment to ensure that it is completed before a new president takes office.
Members of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, have visited China twice since August. In January, in an unusual development, a delegation from the party met with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.
China had hoped it could persuade the South’s next president to refuse to agree to Thaad, said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “Now China is afraid Thaad will be deployed before the new president of South Korea is in office,” he said.
Even as China’s fury toward the South is on full display, it is also at odds with the North. A North Korean diplomat, Ri Kil-song, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for five days of talks, an apparent effort by Pyongyang to reach out to China, its economic and political benefactor.
Mr. Ri and Mr. Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, made soothing public statements on Wednesday about the “traditional friendship” between their two countries. Behind the scenes, though, things are unlikely to have been so smooth.
Last month, China suspended its imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year, a surprise move that appeared to be a response to the brazen killing in Malaysia of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. South Korea has accused the North of carrying out the attack.
The killing may have been taken as an affront by Beijing because the victim had lived in Macau, a Chinese special administrative region. Kim Jong-nam had expressed admiration for China’s market economy, and some analysts have speculated that China saw him as a potential replacement for his erratic half brother.
“One thing after another is happening,” Mr. Cheng, the Renmin University professor, said of China’s simultaneous troubles with the Koreas. “Not good things — all bad things.”
Jane Perlez reported from Beijing and Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul, South Korea. Amy Qin and Yufan Huang contributed research from Beijing.