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The Difficulty Of Basing U.S. Missiles In Asia


Defense Secretary Mark Esper is in South Korea today in his first trip to Asia since assuming office. He began his trip calling for the United States to put intermediate-range non-nuclear missiles on the ground in Asia. He raised this issue the day after the U.S. pulled out of a treaty banning such missiles with nuclear warheads. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, finding a country willing to host these missiles might not be so easy.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Speaking en route to Australia last week, Esper said he'd like to see the missiles deployed in a matter of months, although he admitted it might take longer. South Korea's government signaled it's not keen to host those weapons. Presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min said that the missiles are not on the agenda with Secretary Esper.


NOH YOUNG-MIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Let me be clear, he told lawmakers this week, the government is never engaged in discussions about deploying intermediate-range missiles, and we have no plan to do so. The Pentagon is considering the deployment, analysts believe, partly because it's worried about the growing stocks of missiles that North Korea, China and Russia have to target U.S. forces in Asia.

Washington says the weapons would be non-nuclear and defensive in nature, but MIT political scientist Vipin Narang says that China will not see it that way.

VIPIN NARANG: They're targeting our forward bases and operating presence in what they believe is, you know, essentially their sphere of influence. But we will be targeting their homeland. And, you know, that is highly escalatory.

KUHN: Beijing has threatened countermeasures, and judging from its reaction, Narang says, China feels as safe with U.S. missiles on its doorstep as the Kennedy administration felt about the Soviet Union putting nuclear weapons in Cuba in the 1960s.

Cho Seong-ryoul with the Institute for National Security Strategy, a government funded think tank in Seoul, argues that deploying intermediate range missiles could actually make South Korea less safe.

CHO SEONG-RYOUL: (Through interpreter) If we host intermediate-range missiles, China and Russia will in return deploy and aim their ballistic missiles at South Korea.

KUHN: And as Seoul and Tokyo slide towards one trade war, he says, Seoul can hardly afford to start another with China. Plus, he says, the U.S. missiles could get in the way of Seoul's top priority.

CHO: (Through interpreter) Currently, the chief task at hand is the ongoing negotiations for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

KUHN: But not everyone here agrees with South Korean president Moon Jae-in's administration on this issue. Former vice chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Shin Won-sik, argues that what South Korea needs is a stronger deterrent, including possibly basing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea.

SHIN WON-SIK: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: Reinforcing the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance with this missile deployment and a nuclear sharing agreement, he says, will make it easier and faster for us to denuclearize North Korea. Even if that fails, such measures would give the U.S. and its allies a nuclear balance against China, Russia and North Korea.

Shin says he's worried by the Trump administration's lack of concern about North Korea's recent test of missiles which can hit South Korea but not the U.S. He says he does not want to see his country sacrificed to protect the U.S. mainland.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.