South Korea’s decision to deploy an advanced US antimissile system is increasing domestic and regional tensions
South Korea has been in turmoil since President Park Geun-Hye’s sudden announcement in July to deploy the advanced US antimissile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery at an artillery base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, allegedly to protect the South against North Korea’s ballistic missile threats.
THAAD is a key element of the US Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase using a hit-to-kill approach. The missile carries no warhead but relies on the kinetic energy of the impact to destroy the incoming missile. THAAD was designed to hit Scuds and similar weapons.
In her televised Liberation Day speech on 15 August, when both Koreas were celebrating the anniversary of the peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Park stated that the deployment of THAAD would be an act of self-defence, and she urged the North Korean government to immediately stop all provocations and threats targeting South Korea, as well as the development of weapons of mass destruction. Park added that her priority as president was to ‘protect the lives of our people from the reckless provocations of the North’.
Park stressed that ‘true liberation’ would involve reunification of the peninsula, saying that that could only happen by removing the fear of nuclear weapons, missiles and war. She added, ‘The deployment of THAAD is an act of self-defence’, and that ‘such a matter … should not be the subject of a political fight’.
Despite Park’s security–protection claim, her unilateral decision has angered the residents of Seongju, where the defence system is set to be based. On 15 August, more than 900 people joined in a head-shaving protest in Seongju. Protest leader Kim An-soo said, ‘This is the most powerful way of displaying protest. We cannot protest any bigger.’
The demonstration followed many other protests, including on 15 July, when angry protestors threw eggs and water bottles at Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn, demanding that the THAAD decision be scrapped. The brave prime minister was in Seongju to appease residents, but the crowd of some 3,000 encircled a bus in which Hwang had taken refuge from the volley of eggs, and they refused to let him go until he undertook to withdraw the decision.
That was the third consecutive day of protests in Seongju, where citizens claim that the THAAD deployment would destroy the area’s economic lifeline, melon farming, and create risks to health and the environment. Residents argue that the THAAD’s powerful radar system would make them a key military target. In fact, the South Korean defence ministry, in vowing to minimise any impact from THAAD on citizens and the environment, has clearly implied that there would be such risks.
As a result of these protests, the South Korean government has found an alternative location near a golf course in northern Seongju, but this alternative site has made little difference in terms of residents’ protests. In fact, the residents of the new alternative site, located near the city of Gimcheon, have already generated massive protests and thus South Korea’s ‘THAAD stalemate’ is deepening.
Besides these residents’ protests, the Park government’s THAAD decision also angered many leading civic leaders and former government officials. In a national people’s forum on the THAAD deployment on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the late President Kim Dae-Jung (1998–2002) on 18 August, Paek Nak-chong, Chairman of the Board of the Korean Peninsula Peace Forum, argued that ‘everyone, whether a specialist, politician or ordinary citizen, should act differently from normal by realising the current crisis’. Song Min-sun, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2006–08) argued that the THAAD deployment essentially belonged to ‘the politics of major powers’, while Sol Hun, an opposition Korea Party member of the National Assembly, argued that the issue of THAAD deployment was not something that could be decided hastily, but the United States ‘would likely rush into it, and thus we have to find a way to avoid that rush’.
The irony of this THAAD deployment is that it cannot protect Seoul, with a population of over 10 million, and its surrounding regions. Seoul is located over 200 kilometres from Seongju, and thus beyond the protected zone provided by the THAAD system if built in northern Seongju. However, it would certainly be enough to protect US troops stationed in Pyongtaek near Seoul, which is the main reason for President Park meeting the US demand to deploy the THAAD system in the first place. As O Young-jin, chief editorial writer for The Korea Times, reminded readers, the Seoul metro area was excluded from THAAD coverage because, ‘in the event of war, civilians are considered collateral with lower priority than military assets in the order of protection’.
In the context of this anomaly, which essentially exposes the growing US–China conflict in the region, how are neighbouring countries reacting toward this controversial US antimissile THAAD plan in South Korea?
Regional, global and US perspectives
As THAAD forms the core element of America’s multilayered defence program in the region, and is also geared toward defending American troops there, President Park’s decision has sparked regional controversy, with China and Russia as well as North Korea objecting, and some commentators envisaging the beginning of a ‘new Cold War’.
China, to begin with, is fuming. Since the official statement on 7 July to deploy THAAD, China has strongly objected to the decision, requesting the South Korean government to cancel the plan. Beijing in fact threatens all-out retaliation. As South Korea’s largest trading partner, which purchased 26 per cent of all Korean exports in 2015, China has already restricted the import of a wide variety of audiovisual K-pop music from South Korea.
Prior to the THAAD announcement, China and Russia had issued a joint statement on 25 June, signed by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, which expressed concern over the unilateral deployment of antimissile systems all over the world. Such deployments, they said, were non-constructive and had negatively affected global and regional strategic balance, stability and security. The possible deployment of the THAAD system in northeast Asia, they argued, would severely infringe upon the strategic security interests of countries in the region. China and Russia regarded the planned deployment as a strategic action by the United States to put their military facilities within the range of US radars.
For its part, North Korea, as usual in response to US military activity in the South, has threatened to take ‘physical action’ in retaliation for the decision. In fact, critics of the decision to deploy the THAAD system to South Korea see North Korea’s recent submarine-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) test as retaliation to that decision, and a leading military arms specialist, Dr Shin In-gyun, has argued that North Korea’s brinkmanship strategy, focused mainly on the US and Japan, will deepen (Dong-A Ilbo, 26 August, 2016).
South Korean and Japanese concerns
Many in South Korea and Japan are at the same time concerned about the strength of the US commitment to protect them from external attack. US credibility is being questioned due to the changing dynamics of US relations globally. South Korea and Japan, for example, have noted President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his ‘red line’ warning that any attempt by Syria to move or use its chemical weapons would change his administration’s ‘calculus’ in the region, evoking the possibility of more direct US intervention in the Syrian conflict.
Some members of South Korea’s government have called for South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, arguing that this will deter a North Korean attack and push China to increase pressure on its ‘small brother’ to roll back its weapons programs
And politically, the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump as its presidential candidate is likely to make nuclear-weapons proliferation in Asia more likely. Indeed, if Trump is elected, he has said he would be ‘absolutely prepared to tell those [Asian] countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself”’.
The question for South Korea, as asked by Park Geun-Hye, is, ‘What is the alternative?’ Some members of South Korea’s government have called for South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, arguing that this will deter a North Korean attack and push China to increase pressure on its ‘small brother’ to roll back its weapons programs.
If South Korea were to pursue this path, Japan would be likely to do likewise, especially in view of China’s aggressive claim to the Senkaku Islands. Japan could quickly develop nuclear weapons if it decided to do so, as it has an enormous stockpile of separated plutonium and the technical know-how to be a nuclear power. However, both countries would risk their relationship with the US and possibly expose themselves to economic and energy sanctions.
More significantly, the implications of a nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula would be disastrous for the region, especially if the logic of striking first to eliminate the other’s capability were to prevail. Rather, alternative solutions are needed, especially by building “trust” not only between the two Koreas, but more importantly between the US and China, as both countries are deeply suspicious of each other’s ambitions regarding the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.
THAAD’s effectiveness would be difficult to prove. However, with genuinely creative ideas and an approach based either on trust-building or what can be described as a forward-looking negotiation , Korea might find ways to solve this untenable dilemma without necessarily being caught up in the hegemony game being played by the world’s two greatest powers, the US and China. This would be a big challenge.