After the change of power in South Korea, many people got the idea that after the authorities in South Korea change completely, the decision to deploy US missile defense elements on the Korean territory can be reconsidered. Unfortunately, these hopes remind the author of a similar mood that people experienced at the time of Trump’s victory, believing that the policy of the new American leader would be significantly different from that of his predecessors.
Even during the election, Mun Zhe Ying said that he would try not so much to review the deal as to try to “reach consensus with all” and convince China that these actions are not directed against it. As Mun said in the April 11, 2017 speech, China must abolish the economic sanctions imposed under the pretext of deploying THAAD and make greater use of the deterrence capabilities of Pyongyang, rather than “economically punishing China-friendly South Korea.”
But almost a month later, during his inaugural speech, the politician said that he plans to reconsider the issue of THAAD placement. Say, in case of refusal to review the treaty with the US “the benefits of THAAD will be limited” due to the deterioration of relations between Seoul and Beijing, whose assistance South Korea and the United States of America are trying to attract to exert pressure on Pyongyang. This remark was naturally interpreted as “will definitely fight for cancellation”, but is it so?
On May 12, it became known that “in order to stop unnecessary dissent in society,” the Special Commission on the issue of deployment of the THAAD PRO complexes under the Tobura Democratic Party, is planning to organize parliamentary hearings on this issue – there is a need to resolve a number of disputes on the procedure for placing the complexes, delivering and installing equipment, as well as the discrepancies in the corresponding expenses. In addition, Mun Zhe Ying repeatedly spoke about the need to conduct a procedure for ratifying the bill on THAAD in the National Assembly. Truthfully, it is worth mentioning that Mun’s party does not constitute a majority in it, and discussing the issue in parliament does not mean making the right decision.
Formally, by accepting THAAD, South Korea has clearly chosen sides in a possible conflict, significantly reducing its maneuvering room, and runs the risk of certain problems and countermeasures from Beijing, and to a lesser extent, Moscow. But the reasons for this choice are nevertheless quite understandable: although the South Korean regime has never been a puppet regime, Seoul has always depended on Washington as part of its foreign policy. Indeed, on some issues it ran ahead of the locomotive: this is evident, if only because of Lee Myung-Bak, and in the last years of Park Geun-hye’s rule, the conservatives actively tried to lead Washington to the need for a power option, wishing to eliminate North Korea with American hands. There were times that Seoul played its own games, but only Park Chung Hee could afford it with his nuclear program attempt. But even then, such actions did not diverge radically from the United States’ perspective.
To the objection: what about Kim Dae-jung’s “solar policy” and the subsequent course of Roh Moo-hyun? In response, just recall that the chosen term very clearly indicates its purpose: it is Aesop’s fable about how the sun and wind tried to force a man to take off his fur coat. The wind blew, but the man only wrapped himself deeper, the sun baked – and the man took off his fur coat himself. The sun did not just have to melt the “ice of distrust”, but lead to denuclearization and, in the long run, regime change. Therefore, although from the point of view of the conservatives it was a policy of unilateral concessions to North Korea and its partial recognition, in fact the difference was in the methods, but not in the macro-strategic goal.
The same can be said about the current level of South Korean anti-Americanism, which, in many ways, is used as a means of releasing steam. Let’s remember the demonstrations of 2008 against American beef, which allowed to work out a new technology of thousands of peaceful demonstrations, but, from the point of view of the end result, did not lead to anything. And the violent anti-American antics that accompanied Roh Moo-hyun’s rise to power were “turned off” by the first shout from Washington.
The entire contemporary South Korean elite has grown out of that layer of the liberal intelligentsia that, even in colonial times, was under the umbrella of American missionary organizations. This cover made it possible to engage in nationalism to a limited extent and gave certain ideas about liberal democracy, and therefore, from the very beginning of the establishment of the South Korean state, Washington began to rely on these “several hundred conservatives”, and not representatives of the national liberation movement, which seemed too left, dangerous and unpredictable.
This dependence continues even now, since a significant part of South Korea’s political elite either studied in America, or sent their children to study there. Although the idea of introducing English as the second state language was safely abandoned as yet another Roh Moo-hyun’s populist utterance, Christians of all stripes greatly exceed the supporters of traditional religions, and Protestants dominate inside Christianity itself. In addition, Christianity (and Protestantism in particular) remains a religion of economic, political and business circles, and churches often play the role of social clubs or informal lobbying structures. Here, it is relevant to remember not so much Park Geun-hye’s confidante, as much as the fact that under Lee Myung-Bak several businessmen, who “by happy coincidence” attended the same Protestant parish with him, had enriched themselves.
Thus, the political ties between Seoul and Washington are much more significant than any ties between Seoul and Beijing. The South Korean political elite does not have an alternative value system within which they can refuse to orient towards the US, even if US policy will use South Korea as a kind of “human shield”.
Also, do not forget that even though Park Geun-hye’s decision to deploy THAAD was made without extensive consultations, according to opinion polls, almost half of the population support it, considering this ABM system to be a shield against the threat from the North. This means, that although now we periodically read about demonstrations of local residents against the missiles, when trying to revise the agreement, demonstrations by the conservatives against the revision are also likely.
Therefore, when forming new bases for the foreign policy of the country, Mun will inevitably face the current conjuncture, which, due to a number of objective and subjective reasons, cannot be changed or ignored.
Yes, it’s possible that Mun will be able to dodge Trump’s demands for an additional one billion USD for the ABM Missile installation, significantly slow down the timing of the deployment of the following batteries, or ensure that these radars and missiles cover not only the elements of the US infrastructure, but key facilities of South Korea. However, the same question about the billion comes with a set of other economic claims related to Washington’s desire to revise a number of key agreements (including free trade), which, in his opinion, are too profitable for Seoul. Maintaining economic growth rates against the backdrop of the current wave of protectionism is not an easy task, and if it comes to fighting for them and the likely and serious losses that South Korea might face when it is revised, the THAAD card will have to be played out as change – to keep American missiles in order to defend more important positions.
Therefore, according to the author, we should prepare for THAAD in South Korea – it is serious and likely for a long time. Only the regional analogue of the Caribbean crisis, could stop their deployment, the consequence of which would be de-escalation of tension and dismantling of its increasing combat systems.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”