Is South Korea making enemies by using the US missile defence system?

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Heffron

South Korea’s move to install the disputed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile system, as part of the US’s “pivot to Asia” approach, could help the government to focus on security fears. But ironically, the plan is also bound to stir up domestic fear as well as regional mistrust.

Usually, South Koreans tend to vote for conservative candidates when tensions get high on the Korean peninsula. The deployment of THAAD is creating unsubstantiated fears among the overall public that South Korea’s territory cannot be protected without having the US’s missile defense system in place.
In reference to Park’s setback in the 2016 general elections, where her Saenuri Party lost both its majority and its status as the largest party in the National Assembly, North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, Kim Yong Hyun, said, “The Park Geun-Hye government might have approached the THAAD issue in respect of the lame duck period”, Kim added that President Park Geun-hye might have thought of the THAAD deployment as a problem possible of drawing public attention on security threats.

To recover lost support from conservative voters, Park could have wanted to draw public attention to security problems with the deployment of THAAD. Park is due to make an active use of the THAAD deployment issue as way to gather her conservative supporters, said Kim.

Divided opinion

A national survey showed that popular opinion over the deployment was divided almost by half – with 49.4 % in favour, and 42.3 % against it. But it might change, if it harms China-South Korea relations, particularly economic ties. Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said that the THAAD call would lead to a decrease in Chinese tourists visiting South Korea, and also the potential boycott of South Korean products in China.

While the ruling Saenuri Party supports the installation of THAAD, the minor People’s Party has been claiming the deal ought to pass the scrutiny of the National Assembly.

Cho June-hyuck, spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, settled the argument when he said it the issue of THAAD did not need to be subject to parliamentary approval. At a press conference, he claimed the deployment of THAAD does not represent a constitutional issue relating to the dispatch of troops abroad, or to the stationing of foreign troops on South Korean soil.

“Parliament ought to pave the approach for the general public discussion on the readying set up”, he added. The main opposition Minjoo Party presently remains neutral regarding THAAD, though a number of its lawmakers voiced their discontent.

Moon Jae-in, former Minjoo Party leader and presidential candidate throughout the 2012 election, said on his Facebook page that the deployment of THAAD would inflict additional losses rather than gains, from the viewpoint of national interests, calling for the problem to be re-examined and made open for dialogue.

He said the mismanaged THAAD issue by the government has created a crisis, instead of keeping crisis in check. Therefore, the Park Geun-hye administration’s insistence on THAAD has jeopardised international collaboration in fixing the peninsula’s nuclear issue.

Feeling threatened

The US had agreed with South Korea, but China and Russia are stalwartly opposing the use of THAAD. They say it will weaken the region further and may cause North Korea to become more threatening.

In reference to its neighbour to the north, a South Korean missile expert said, “THAAD makes the North Korean government very vulnerable. A South Korean missile makes the North Korean government’s nuclear weapons a weaker deterrent. The North Korean government must develop different ways that will make itself more dangerous to Seoul and Washington.”

The political effect of the use of THAAD concerns China. Many fear it has the possibility to destroy relationships between China, the United States, and Russia. North Korea launched its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite last month for “science, technology, economy and defense” research purposes. South Korea and many other countries are suspicious of North Korea’s aims are not what they are claiming, but instead their reason for the satellite launch was to expand their intercontinental ballistic missile program.

THAAD is designed to shoot down any missiles, especially ballistic missiles, launched. South Korean weapons experts say it is not an offensive weapon. And many say they retain the absolute right to defend their country as they see fit.