The U.S. and South Korean military began to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD system in South Korea on March 6, right after North Korea fired four ballistic missiles. And the two allies started their annual combined military exercises known as Key Resolve on March 13. The bilateral exercises include the one based on the assumption that the THAAD missile defense system had already been deployed in Seongju in the southern part of South Korea. It seems tension on the Korean Peninsula is higher than ever before. Here’s Hong Hyun-ik at the Sejong Institute to explain.

Amid the ever-growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. are pushing on with the THAAD deployment. But China is vehemently opposed to the move, taking various economic retaliatory measures against South Korea. Another factor that is stoking tension on the Korean Peninsula is the South Korea-U.S. combined military exercises, which are conducted at this time of year. North Korea tends to step up the level of its provocations during the exercise period, so this is something to watch for. Also, on April 15, North Korea will commemorate the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. Pyongyang may possibly mark the significant occasion with another nuclear test or missile launch. Therefore, tension will likely continue lingering until mid- or late April.

On March 7, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that South Korea and the U.S. would have to bear all the consequences that THAAD deployment may cause, adding that the two nations should stop the process immediately. On a similar note, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a press conference on March 8 that the THAAD installment was the biggest problem between South Korea and China for now, noting that Beijing had fiercely opposed it from the beginning. He argued that everybody knows the THAAD system’s radars, which can cover regions far beyond the Korean Peninsula, might hurt China’s security interests. What he meant was that the system’s X-band radar could be used to spy on China’s territory. Seoul and Beijing are facing the greatest challenge in their relations since they established diplomatic ties 25 years ago.

China operates a long-range radar system in Heilongjiang Province. The system is able to detect targets 5,500 kilometers away, far enough away to monitor the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In January this year, China installed an over-the-horizon radar system in Neimenggu. This one provides coverage over an area of 3,000 kilometers. South Korea is wondering why China is taking issue with the THAAD radar, which has a range of about 800 kilometers, even while deploying its own advanced radars one after another. China argues that it is the U.S. that will deploy and operate the THAAD battery, which is part of Washington’s missile defense system in East Asia, and therefore South Korea, whether it likes it or not, will take the lead in confronting China. Beijing is sending a clear message that THAAD deployment will inevitably worsen South Korea-China relations. Nevertheless, South Korea is pushing ahead with the plan for the sake of national security. In response, China continues with its economic retaliation against South Korea.

On March 8, Yanbian University professor Jin Qiangyi told China’s state-run Global Times that while South Korea and China are tangled up with the THAAD deployment, North Korea will get more breathing space in the region. According to Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department official and visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, North Korea will be very happy about the conflict between South Korea and China over the THAAD issue. That means North Korea could benefit from China’s intense opposition to the THAAD deployment, rather than feeling uneasy about the advanced U.S. missile defense system.

The Trump administration in the U.S. seeks to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue by using China’s influence on its communist ally. The U.S. is stepping up its pressure on China, since it believes that Beijing is rather lukewarm about discouraging Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. But Washington’s move has not encouraged China to impose stronger sanctions on North Korea. On the contrary, it seems to be working to improve North Korea-China relations. It is becoming increasingly clear that North Korea assassinated leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who China had protected. But despite this, China’s foreign minister has recently met North Korea’s vice foreign minister and stressed the importance of bilateral ties. As we know, China accounts for nearly 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade. In this sense, the diplomatic feud between South Korea and China and between China and the U.S. over the THAAD issue is good news for North Korea.

Meanwhile, North Korea has said that the nation isn’t interested in any kind of dialogue if it has the purpose of getting the regime to give up its nuclear program. In a press conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.N., Kim In-ryong, criticized international sanctions on North Korea, saying that they have no legal grounds and violate the nation’s sovereign rights and principles in international relations. Regarding the South Korea-U.S. combined military drills, Kim reiterated his nation’s previous claim that the drills are a rehearsal for a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea. He also stressed that the nation launched missiles in light of the defensive right of the sovereign state in response to the drills. Amid North Korea’s series of provocations and the THAAD dispute, attention turns to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tour to Japan, South Korea and China that started on Wednesday.

The THAAD battery has the purpose of defending South Korea better against North Korean missiles. By installing the American missile defense system on its soil, South Korea can also contribute to strengthening military cooperation with the U.S. and defending Japan as well. But it isn’t easy for South Korea to deal with China diplomatically by itself. I think the U.S. should directly negotiate with China to resolve the THAAD issue when Tillerson meets the Chinese leadership in Beijing.

The first U.S.-China summit under President Donald Trump is expected to take place early next month. It remains to be seen whether the summit talks will become a critical watershed in the controversial THAAD deployment as well as the North Korean nuclear issue.

[Interview] Defector Starts Second Life as Social Worker

I often meet North Korean expats my age or those who are younger than me. They say it is encouraging to know that I work at the foundation, and they thank me for creating various programs for them. Their comments always cheer me up.

This man is Park Yeong-cheol, a social worker at the Wooyang Foundation, which is a local NGO. He is a North Korean defector who came to South Korea in 2001. When he was younger, he went back and forth between North Korea and China as many as 40 to 50 times to earn his livelihood. He was forcibly sent back to the North several times. He worked hard, even risking his own life, but his family was still poor and things never got any better. Park escaped from North Korea with his younger brother and finally arrived in South Korea by way of China and Thailand.

I’ve gone through difficulties that everyone experiences, like cultural differences and economic hardships. I came here only with my younger brother, and I had no connection at all. I couldn’t ask for help from anyone and I couldn’t open my heart to anyone.

Park was 20 years old when he came to South Korea. While trying hard to adjust to an unfamiliar environment and taking care of his brother, he entered high school rather late and studied with younger friends. After graduation, he managed to advance to college and majored in social welfare.

The concept of social welfare is quite unfamiliar to people in North Korea. I grew up in a poor family and I endured many difficulties in the process of defecting to South Korea. So I can fully understand people in a difficult situation and I hope to help them live better lives by using my own experience. That’s why I decided to study social welfare.

After graduating from college, Park was able to get a coveted job in a financial company. But he changed jobs and began to work at this organization to realize his dream as a social worker. There, he organized various programs for North Korean defectors.

The first project I worked on was a football event that brought together young people from both South and North Korea. I also organized a training program for North Korean defectors who would later work as lecturers in local schools to inform students about North Korean society and culture. Many North Korean newcomers want to learn English. The foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with some private learning institutes so North Korean students can learn English there at discounted fees. Also, the cost for a wedding ceremony might be a significant burden on North Koreans. So, we contacted local wedding companies and helped those who want to hold a wedding ceremony at reasonable prices.

When he first came here, he didn’t know what to do for the future. He knows what it feels like, and that’s why he has been making great efforts to create necessary and useful programs for North Korean newcomers, constantly communicating with them. But his activities are not just limited to those related to North Koreans.

I entered this organization with the hope of doing something good for North Korean expats. But I also work for South Korean citizens as well by helping and visiting older people who live alone. I find this work rewarding. Anyone can help out those in need, regardless of the person’s hometown or age. I was very impressed to see senior citizens expressing gratitude to me.

It’s already been eight years since Park worked as a social worker. These days, he is greatly interested in mentoring programs designed to ease loneliness. After Korea is unified, he hopes to return to his North Korean hometown and offer welfare programs that would benefit local residents.

I believe unification will come about some day. After unification, I wish to set up a welfare center in my hometown in North Korea and serve as a steppingstone to better welfare there. I imagine many troubles may arise in a unified Korean society. As a person who has experienced both North and South Korea, I hope to play the middleman role.

We’re looking forward to the day when welfare centers will be created in North Korea, so all the citizens there can enjoy welfare benefits.