The March 10 ouster of South Korean president Park Geun-hye, external pressure from North Korea and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and internal pressure from South Korean youth combine to create a perfect storm that has the capacity to harm domestic security and international trade. Both the PRC and North Korea could seek to capitalize on Park Geun-hye’s potentially dovish replacement and bully South Korea into an unfavorable situation. Moving forward, the best option for South Korea is to stand firm against Chinese demands and retain the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system.
Park’s impeachment comes on the heels of several high-profile events in the region. A month prior, Kim-Jong Nam, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, was assassinated by VX nerve agent and, two days after the impeachment, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan as part of ongoing nuclear weapons delivery testing. Furthermore, the deployment of THAAD, which was intended to counter the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles, was sped up due to the recent missile tests, irritating the PRC.
Chinese displeasure with the deployment of THAAD has been reflected in retaliation against the South Korean private sector. Chinese officials moved to shut down 23 China-based stores of South Korea’s fifth-largest company, the Lotte Group, for “fire-safety issues” and its Lotte Duty Free website recently suffered a cyber-attack from a Chinese IP. The Chinese government has also moved to ban tour groups from traveling to South Korea. Many South Korean businesses agree that the PRC retaliation to THAAD is hurting business and some are worried it may extend into next year, which could have dire consequences for South Korea’s economy, as the PRC is South Korea’s top trading partner for both imports and exports.
What exactly would a conglomerate have to do to gain the ire of the Chinese government and its people? The answer lies in a Lotte Group-owned golf course in South Korea’s southeastern Seongju region. The company recently signed over part of the golf course in a contract with the South Korean government for use as a site for THAAD systems. Though the Chinese government claims that the deployment of THAAD will include the AN/TPY-2 radar system that would penetrate too deeply into Chinese territory, this is a poor argument. With the deployment of the same system in Japan and the PAVE PAWS radar system in Taiwan, the installation of THAAD in South Korea does not offer anything new in terms of monitoring missile activity in China. What the AN/TPY-2 could do is severely reduce China’s nuclear second-strike capability by allowing US forces to better target incoming Chinese ICBMs by reducing the effectiveness of their decoys. Even this possibility, however, is no real threat to Chinese security. Though the Trump administration has called for an increase in military spending and to “expand [the United States’] nuclear capability,” the United States has no intention of attacking the PRC and starting a war that would cripple the world economy and have devastatingly high casualties, so it is unlikely that the PRC will need to use their second-strike capability.
As for the person who will most likely decide the fate of the THAAD deployment, look no further than Moon Jae-in, who leads the Gallup Korea support polls for presidential candidates with 32% of the votes. Moon recently won the Minjoo Party primary by a large margin in South Korea’s Honam region, which includes the Gwangju province and the South and North Jeolla provinces. As the region is the traditional base of the Minjoo Party, it is an important predictor of the party primaries to come. The Minjoo Party, also known as the Democratic Party of Korea, also holds 120 of the 300 seats in South Korea’s National Assembly, making it the largest in the legislature. With the big opening win in the primaries, it is likely that Moon will go on to be the Minjoo Party’s presidential candidate. With a large base of support among young voters, Moon will most likely go on to win the presidential election as well.
Moon Jae-in isn’t without controversy, as some are critical of his stance on the deployment of THAAD. Moon stated that the government should have left the deployment of THAAD up to the next administration and that deploying it so quickly “leave[s] little room in diplomacy for the next government.” Even so, there has been little word on what he would propose to do with regards to the row with China and the security situation with North Korea. To maintain positive trade ties and allay the fears of South Korean businesses, he may very well move to cancel the deployment of THAAD.
The current generation of South Koreans, like their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, still have mandatory national service for males and live under the threat of attack from North Korea. However, the North Korean military is no longer a peer competitor. Despite having more troops and equipment, North Korean forces lack the training and resources to be an effective fighting force. Perhaps the looming specter of North Korea has become nothing more than a banality for the current generation of South Koreans, whose daily lives are interrupted by the North Koreans via news reports rather than by the cross-border raids and kidnappings of yesteryear.
Those in South Korea pushing for peace with North Korea should note that unless the current North Korean regime changes from within or collapses, the only peace to be found will be on North Korea’s terms. Former president Roh Moo-hyun’s “Sunshine Policy” is an example of how unlikely it is for North Korea to deescalate the situation, more so with recent events. The policy saw South Korea attempt to foster positive relations with North Korea through humanitarian aid, only for North Korea to reciprocate by further pursuing its nuclear weapons program. This, as well as the PRC’s reluctance to enforce sanctions on North Korea and its strategic interest in not having a US-friendly unified Korea on its doorstep will be important for the next South Korean administration to keep in mind when weighing its options.
If South Korea were to withdraw THAAD, it sets a dangerous precedent for PRC-South Korean relations, as it shows weakness and encourages the PRC to make further demands with the knowledge that South Korea will yield under pressure. Withdrawing THAAD also reduces the effectiveness of South Korea’s defense against possible nuclear attack by North Korea. The best option for the South Korea, despite internal and external pressure, is to keep THAAD. To quote Winston Churchill, "an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last." In this case, however, there are two crocodiles.
Eric D. Rowe is an M.A. candidate in the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Security Policy Studies (SPS) program, with concentrations in Strategic Concepts/Military History and Defense Analysis. Eric’s regional focus is on the Asia-Pacific, particularly East and Southeast Asia and his research interests include asymmetrical warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and non-democratic states.