South Koreans have just elected a new president who has criticized the deployment of THAAD on his country’s soil, expressed a need to reconcile with Pyongyang and challenged Seoul to tell America, “no.”
Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and activist, is replacing disgraced ex-president Park Geun-hye who is sitting in prison awaiting trial on corruption charges. It will be the first time in ten years that a liberal politician will serve as head of South Korea. His election may cool tensions between the two nations and, perhaps, be welcomed by Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. The previous administration was hawkish towards the north and welcomed U.S. support, particularly THAAD.
The system, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is designed to shoot down incoming short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase. Many South Koreans object to the THAAD deployment because they feel the geopolitical retaliation that could come from China and Russia, nations that both object to the system, isn’t worth it.
Moon has also signaled that he may resume the “sunshine policy,” which calls for Seoul to seek cooperation with the north and not seek regime change.
Though there are criticisms that the policy failed because Pyongyang refused to hold up its end of the relationship, some scholars blame former president George W. Bush for undermining the efforts of previous South Korean presidents who tried to make it work.
(Remember, Bush’s “Axis of Evil” line during his 2002 State of the Union speech? That probably didn’t help. On the other hand, North Korea appears to be run by crazy people with survival as their only M.O.)
During his run for office, Moon criticized THAAD, saying that it complicated South Korea’s relations with China, which has long suspected that it could track its own missile systems. Since the deployment of THAAD, China has sharply criticized Seoul and punished the nation via attacks on its economy. CNBC recently reported that China has cited South Korean firms for code violations and shut down online trade of South Korean goods; Beijing has also impeded Chinese tourism to South Korea, according to the report.
Any major economic retaliation by China against South Korea would be quite damaging. China is South Korea’s top trading partner.
Domestically, the system has also been met with resistance. Last August, some 900 people shaved their heads in protest of its deployment. In April, hundreds of South Koreans clashed with police in Seongju during protests against THAAD. More than 51 percent of South Koreans disapprove of the system’s deployment, with only 34 percent approving.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Moon said the U.S. made the decision to deploy the system at a politically vulnerable time when Seoul was not fully prepared to agree to such a critical military move:
One of the biggest problems with this THAAD deployment decision was that it lacked democratic procedure, and it has resulted in a wide division of the nation and aggravated foreign relations. If the South Korean government were to push this issue further, it would only make matters worse, and it would be more difficult to find a solution to this problem. I hope the U.S. government will fully consider these issues.
If the same were to happen in the U.S., would this have happened just by the administration’s unilateral decision without democratic procedure, ratification or agreement by Congress? If South Korea can have more time to process this matter democratically, the U.S. would gain a higher level of trust from South Koreans and therefore the alliance between the two nations would become even stronger.
If this matter can be reviewed by the next administration, the new government would look for a reasonable solution based on the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. that can secure the national interest as well as a national consensus.
Well, Moon is the head of the new administration, so he will be faced with a tough decision of how to possibly reverse THAAD’s deployment. A reversal by Seoul would likely infuriate the Trump administration, but Moon likely won’t fear frustrating the White House. In a book he wrote and was published in January, Moon said South Koreans should learn to say “no to America.”
It makes sense, actually. As I wrote previously, Trump seems hellbent on a singular military approach to addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. Though, he recently said he’d be willing to sit with Kim, Trump’s unpredictability likely isn’t reassuring for Seoul.
The reality is that South Korea has the most to lose in Washington’s geopolitical fight with Pyongyang. Seoul’s decision to host THAAD has strained its relations with Beijing and upset many South Koreans in the process. And Pyongyang sees South Korea as Washington’s puppet and continues to threaten the south with violence. So far, allowing the U.S. to steer North Korean policy hasn’t worked out too well for Seoul and Moon has said as much. During his Washington Post interview, he credited the U.S. for building South Korea’s national security and said he would not unilaterally open up talks with Pyongyang without consulting Washington first.
But, he added this:
However, I believe we need to be able to take the lead on matters in the Korean Peninsula as the country directly involved.
I do not see it as desirable for South Korea to take the back seat and watch discussions between the U.S. and China and dialogues between North Korea and the U.S. I believe South Korea taking the initiative would eventually strengthen our bilateral alliance with the U.S.
Basically, this is a nice way of Moon saying there is a new sheriff in town and things are going to change in regards to how much influence Washington will have over Seoul’s dealings with North Korea. Not only will that be a good thing, it may actually lead to a peaceful resolution for the region that America has failed to deliver so far.