Free: Sept/Oct Public Forum Topic Analysis | Champion Briefs
← Back to Blog

September 26, 2017

Free: Sept/Oct Public Forum Topic Analysis

By Belén Mella

Resolved: Deployment of anti-missile systems is in South Korea's best interest.

Happy September, Public Forum debaters! This is the one time of year when the debate resolution spans two months, which means there's more opportunities to master this topic. It's always exciting when the debates taking place in tournaments across the country mirror those taking place on the world stage, and that couldn't be more true for "Resolved: Deployment of anti-missile systems is in South Korea's best interest." This past summer saw the North Korean government escalate threats amidst a war of words with the US, as well as the South Korean government waver on whether to deploy an American anti-missile system on their soil.

Whether you're a novice new to the exciting world of debate or a veteran ready to reach the next level, this topic will give you plenty of material to work with, from up to the minute news articles to decades old scholarly pieces on nuclear politics. This topic analysis is a good place to start. We'll start with some background information, including some details on North Korea's nuclear weapons program and major facts about missile defense. Then we'll break down the resolution, considering what might be included under "anti-missile systems" and what we might make of "South Korea's best interest." Finally, we'll discuss some interesting arguments for Pro and Con.


The debate over anti-missile systems in South Korea intensified in the summer of 2016, when the South Korean Defense Ministry initially decided to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the southeastern county of Seongju. THAAD will likely be a major focus of September debates, as it is central to the real-world debate over anti-missile systems in South Korea. Rob Schmitz of NPR[1] details that THAAD is designed to "shoot down short and intermediate range missiles in the terminal phase — often described as like shooting a bullet with a bullet." The United States installed THAAD on Guam (an American territory 2,100 miles southeast of Pyongyang) after a series of nuclear threats from North Korea in 2013[2].

The initial decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea came under their former President, Park Guen-hye[3]. Park became involved in a major corruption scandal, and in the last days before her impeachment, she reportedly rushed the deployment of THAAD's first launchers. Park was succeeded by Moon Jae-in, who had been an outspoken critic of THAAD as an opposition leader but "softened his position… before running for the presidency." Nevertheless, when Moon learned that the "South Korean military had gone around his office to pursue a full deployment," he halted deployment of an additional four launchers for THAAD until after an environmental assessment of its impact was conducted. As of early August, the South Korean government has opted to "proceed with the temporary deployment" of THAAD.

Any debate over South Korea's anti-missile defense system is underlied by the topic of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The Nuclear Threat Initiative[4] is a useful source on this topic, breaking down the known facts and figures pertaining to North Korea's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. They explain that although Pyongyang's interest in nuclear weapons dates to the end of World War II, they officially withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in January 2003. Since then, North Korea has conducted five successful nuclear tests (in 2006, 2009, 2013, January 2016, and September 2016)[5].

Public Forum debate speeches are only two and four minutes long, so while you certainly don't want to dig into too many details, understanding the basics of nuclear weapons development can help you make better sense of your research and give you a major edge in crossfire. For one, debaters should understand that there is a distinction between having developed a nuclear bomb and being able to launch a nuclear attack[6]. For the latter to take place, North Korea must be capable of miniaturization, or the ability to "make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on to a missile." Though Pyongyang has been claiming successful miniaturization for years, a leaked US intelligence report from August 2017 suggests that they have finally achieved it. Additionally, it is worth noting that their September 2016 nuclear tests yielded 35 kilotons; to put this into perspective, consider that the U.S. bomb on Hiroshima had an estimated yield of 16 kilotons, meaning North Korea has surpassed this power twofold[7]. Furthermore, there is a distinction between hydrogen bombs (which use nuclear fusion, merging atoms) and atomic bomb (which use nuclear fission, splitting atoms). The former is more powerful, and though experts are skeptical, North Korea claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb in 2016. There's also the question of plutonium versus uranium enrichment, the latter offering more destructive potential (since it can be done in secret and is more plentiful, which could amount to a larger stockpile); North Korea claims to have an active uranium-enrichment program.

Breaking Down the Resolution

The first phrase in the resolution is "deployment of anti-missile systems." As the Heritage Foundation points out, missile defense is broad and potentially multilayered, including sea, ground, and space-based systems[8]. There are some major ambiguities in this phrasing. Whose anti-missile systems? Deployment where? The answer to this latter question is most likely South Korea, since the resolution refers to South Korea's best interests and this interpretation has the most ground on both sides. The question of "whose anti-missile systems" is more complicated, since it might refer to South Korean, American, or even Japanese systems. How debaters choose to answer this question has important implications for the round. For example, there might be benefits and drawbacks to an American anti-missile system that don't apply to a South Korean one, and vice versa. Inevitably, THAAD will dominate much of the debate, since it is covered extensively by news outlets and the point of reference for many of the real-world debates on this topic. Teams should be prepared to defend their interpretation of the resolution and be flexible to make arguments that apply under alternate interpretations.

The second important phrase in this resolution is "South Korea's best interest." Many of the news articles debaters will stumble upon are written from a United States perspective; keep this in mind as you construct cases that are meant to defend the interests of South Korea. Also, note the distinction between the interests of South Korea and the interests of a regime or community. On a similar note, whether deployment is or isn't happening in the status quo (the answer might change over the course of September) is not necessarily indicative of whether it's in South Korea's best interest).

What might constitute South Korea's best interest? An obvious answer is security. If missiles constitute a real threat to South Korea's security, then anti-missile defense is certainly an interest. Similarly, if deploying anti-missile defense somehow sparks an arms race that ultimately endangers South Korea, then it might not be in their best interest to do so. Beyond security interests, countries also have political interests. What leverage might South Korea gain or lose by deploying missile systems? Pro teams might point to the fact that deploying THAAD will strengthen South Korean relations with the United States, while con teams will certainly be discussing the backlash that South Korea has already begun to face from China. On a related thread, debaters should keep in mind South Korea's economic interests. For example, a lot of China's backlash has come in the form of boycotts and financial pressure.

The framers of the resolution clearly chose the term best interest in recognition that a country always has multiple interests and that often they compete, giving debaters the tall task of weighing impacts and probabilities. Nuclear annihilation is arguably the worst thing that could happen to a country, but it is probably unlikely. Debaters should think through complex scenarios to construct arguments.

Pro Arguments

Pro teams must defend that deployment of anti-missile defense systems is in South Korea's best interest. There is a pretty straightforward argument to be found right in the resolution: anti-missile defense! Indeed, when President Park first justified deploying THAAD, she made the case that "nothing is more important than protecting the lives and the safety of our people under the situation that the North's nuclear and missile threats have become a reality.[9]" North Korea now can detonate a bomb with two times the yield as the one used in Hiroshima, and they've had the ability to deliver it to South Korea for quite some time. That said, debaters should consider a point raised by Emanuel Pastreich, Director of the Asia Institute[10]: if North Korea were to attack South Korea, they could use existing "substantial artillery units for which Seoul is fully within range." In other words, while a nuclear attack is certainly scary, it is a highly unlikely choice for North Korea to make. In a similar vein, debaters will likely spend plenty of time discussing whether Kim Jong Un is a "rational" leader (as it would certainly be irrational to risk his own country's annihilation by launching a nuclear weapon), but as Anna Fifield of the Washington Post points out, "being rational is not the same as being predictable.[11]"

The obvious impact of anti-missile systems is protecting against a nuclear attack, but there are many subtler political implications as well. This makes sense, especially when we consider concepts like Mutually Assured Destruction and deterrence. Pro teams should spend time considering the political benefits for South Korea if they were to deploy an anti-missile system, namely in preserving some leverage (albeit delicately) against an increasingly bellicose North Korean regime.

There is another pro argument to be made in that deploying anti-missile systems might bolster South Korea's relationship with the United States. This is especially true for THAAD, but may extend to other forms of anti-missile defense as well. Sarah Kim writes in the Korea Daily[12] that if "Seoul's relations with Washington sour considerably over the THAAD issue… the United States may determine that Korea is no longer strategically important in its Asia policymaking and that only a shell of the alliance would be kept." Concretely, this might entail the United States decreasing the number of troops stationed in South Korea, turning its attention to Japan, or even a "'so-called "Korea passing,' a situation diplomatic isolation of Seoul by the Trump government." This political issue extends beyond just the United States and South Korea to the broader trilateral security cooperation that includes Japan. Kim goes on to cite Chung Jae-hung of Sejong Institute, who notes that if US influence in the Asia-Pacific region decreased over an inability to deploy THAAD, Beijing "would then be able to expand its influence in this region, enabling China to exercise its influence in this area much more assertively." Through this example, it becomes clear that countries often have intertwined "best interests."

Con Arguments

When considering South Korea's best interests, debaters should consider security, politics, and economics, among other arenas. China's response to their deployment of an anti-missile system has implications for all three, making it a very strong argument on this topic. Chris Buckley of the New York Times[13] explains that the Chinese government strongly opposes anti-missile systems in South Korea because it could "erode [China's] nuclear deterrent." To have an effective nuclear deterrent, countries must have credible second strike capabilities (that is, the ability to respond to a nuclear attack). China has few misses relative to other nuclear powers. Their fear with the THAAD anti-missile system is not that it might be used to shoot down Chinese misses (it "does not have the reach to bring down China's intercontinental ballistic missiles") but that its radar might be used to collect data on Chinese nuclear warheads, tracking them and helping distinguish real warheads from decoy ones. Of course, an argument needs an impact. In this case, the impact lies in how China might respond. According to Rob Schmitz of NPR, China has already started an economic retaliation, boycotting South Korean products, stalling sales at travel agencies, and shutting down stores[14]. This is problematic, since China is South Korea's largest trading partner. Schmitz furthers that China might also respond by developing the technology to break or at least jam South Korea's anti-missile defense.

If fully deployed, China might also respond by further developing their nuclear weapons to avoid THAAD detection. This ties into a larger argument that the deployment of anti-missile systems might provoke an arms race in Asia. Buckley continues that "China is likely to respond by spending more on its nuclear, missile and antimissile forces 'to ensure survivability of a second-strike force,'" potentially accelerating the production of the Dongfeng-41, a new "generation of missiles… which can be moved around on roads and will also be able to carry multiple warheads."

Shifting gears from the international arena to the domestic one, Con teams might also choose to argue about the resistance with which anti-missile systems have been met within South Korea. According to Nyshka Chandran of CNBC[15], a May poll showed that "the majority of South Koreans oppose sudden THAAD deployment" (though debaters should certainly look for the latest polls and take note of how questions are worded -- for instance, the term "sudden" might be influencing the outcome of this poll). Chandra furthers that this is in large part because they associate THAAD with former President Park Geun-hye, "the country's first democratically elected leader to be ousted from office via impeachment." Park was involved in a multi-million-dollar corruption scandal and reportedly rushed the deployment of THAAD's first two missile launchers "to prevent her successor from reversing the decision," making them a symbol of her disgraced leadership. Brian Padden of Voice of America[16] adds that locals protested THAAD because it might emit radiation that could "endanger the health and safety of people living nearby" and that of their agricultural products. They are also understandably concerned that placing an anti-missile system in their community makes them an early target of any North Korean attack. For these reasons, protestors have poured out onto the streets of South Korea to voice their opposition to THAAD anti-missile defense systems (though Pro teams might respond that much of this opposition is THAAD specific, while the resolution is not).

How could this insight fit into the scope of the resolution? Some teams might choose to argue that democratic governments rule by consent of the people, so if South Koreans are opposed to anti-missile systems, it is reason enough to negate. Of course, opponents might make the argument that citizens don't always understand their country's best interests, since they only consider their individual perspective (not that of the population at large) and aren't privy to specialized information about international politics or the extent of the nuclear threat. Alternatively, teams might also choose to argue that domestic opposition constitutes a reason to negate not in and of itself, because of its consequences. Might protests have some ripple effect on food prices? Would deploying anti-missile systems cost the government so much political capital that they'd be hindered in making other, more important strategic moves? Teams should be reasonable but specific when they outline the consequences of acting against the domestic will. They might also draw on the complaints of South Koreans to write new arguments altogether, including issues pertaining to the environmental impact and effectiveness of anti-missile systems.


If you've made it through this topic analysis, you're ready to hold your own in any dinner table debate about anti-missile defense systems. If you want to excel at tournaments, you're going to have to dig deeper. What does the academic literature have to say about the role of missile defense in politics? What are the more creative interpretations of South Korea's best interests? What's new in the news? If this past summer is any indication, then North Korea's nuclear threat and the international community's response are likely to stay relevant. Sign up for Google News alerts, read the morning paper, and apply some critical thinking to go beyond the headlines. This is a serious topic with real world implications. That said, don't forget that your role as a debater is to learn and have fun! Challenge yourself, encourage your peers, and this is sure to be a stellar September.

About Belén

Belén Mella is a junior at Harvard University, where she is concentrating in Social Studies (a poorly named major that encompasses politics, philosophy, and economics). She coaches at the Horace Mann School in New York and overseas at the National High School Debate League of China. Belén competed in Public Forum for Miami Beach Senior High. As a senior, she championed the Emory Barkley Forum and the Florida State Championship. Additionally, Belén reached finals at the National Catholic Forensic League Tournament, semifinals at Florida Blue Key, and quarterfinals at Glenbrooks, Nova Titan, and the Tournament of Champions. She was ranked fourth in the country and reached late out rounds at the 2014 NSDA Nationals.

Works Cited

[1] Schmitz, Rob. "U.S. Fast-Tracks Missile Defense System To South Korea, Drawing China's Ire." NPR, NPR. 9 March 2017.

[2] Borowick, Nancy, and Megan Specia. "Guam: A Tiny Territory Caught in a Global War of Words." The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Aug. 2017,

[3] Panda, Ankit. "China Hits Back at South Korea's THAAD Deployment Following North Korea's Latest ICBM Test." The Diplomat, The Diplomat, 8 Aug. 2017,

[4] "North Korea." Nuclear Threat Initiative - Ten Years of Building a Safer World, Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 2017,

[5] "North Korea's Nuclear Programme: How Advanced Is It?" BBC News, BBC, 1 Aug. 2017,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sharkov, Damien. "What North Korea's Nukes Can and Cannot Do... Yet." Newsweek, 12 Aug. 2017,

[8] "Missile Defense." The Heritage Foundation, 30 November 2016.

[9] Padden, Brian. "THAAD Radiation Fears Spark South Korean Protests." VOA, VOA, 15 July 2016,

[10] Pastreich, Emanuel (Director, The Asia Institute)."The Unbearable Sadness Of THAAD." The Huffington Post.

[11] Fifield, Anna. "North Korea's Leader Is a Lot of Things - but Irrational Is Not One of Them." The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Mar. 2017,

[12] Kim, Sarah. "Thaad Is Elephant in Room at U.S. Summit." Korea JoongAng Daily. 27 June 2017. Web.

[13] Buckley, Chris. "Why U.S. Antimissile System in South Korea Worries China." The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 March 2017.

[14] Schmitz, Rob. "U.S. Fast-Tracks Missile Defense System To South Korea, Drawing China's Ire." NPR, NPR. 9 March 2017.

[15] Chandran, Nyshka. "North Korea Is More Erratic than Ever, but South Korea Is in No Rush for US Missile Defense." CNBC, CNBC, 26 July 2017,

[16] Padden, Brian. THAAD Radiation Fears Spark South Korean Protests." VOA, VOA, 15 July 2016,