The impossible first task for South Korea’s next president: make both the US and China happy


For all the relief South Korea’s political elite are feeling now that disgraced former president Park Geun-hye is out of office, the incoming administration will immediately be facing a crisis of its own.

The next Korean president, likely Moon Jae-in of the center-left Minjoo Party, will face mounting public pressure to re-evaluate THAAD, an anti-missile defense system that the US has deployed in the south of the country to deter North Korean missiles. As North Korea’s missile launches persist and China continues to vociferously oppose the program for its surveillance impact, the new president will face a quagmire that will likely leave no parties satisfied.

THAAD is one of several intertwined issues complicating diplomatic relations across East Asia, with South Korea stuck between the US and China. The US views THAAD as critical to protecting itself and East Asia from North Korean missiles, which experts believe can reach not just Japan but the US too. In February, secretary of defense James Mattis visited Seoul for the first overseas visit from anyone in the Trump administration to voice support for the program.

Throughout her tenure, Park remained an ardent supporter of THAAD. The president’s position aligned with her party’s hawkish stance towards Pyongyang, as well as its unwavering support for the US alliance. Maintaining strong ties with Washington has been a tradition for Korea’s conservatives. As protests against Park swept Seoul, pro-Park supporters took to the streets waving the South Korean flag, the American flag—and even the Israeli flag.

Now that Park is gone, THAAD’s future is in flux.

Poll data show former human rights attorney Moon has 32% of the public’s support, making him the frontrunner to become the country’s next president. Once the campaign advisor to former president Roh Moo-hyun, Moon has earned support among citizens for his tough stance on the chaebol, Korea’s corruption-riddled, family-run business conglomerates, as well as calls to reform the National Intelligence Service (think CIA and FBI in one body) which in 2012 was implicated in meddling with the election that brought Park to victory.

But Moon has not expressed the same support for THAAD. In December, he implicitly criticized the Park regime’s rollout of the program, telling the media, “The issue of whether or not to deploy THAAD should be pushed to the next government.” Many interpreted this trope as a diplomatic way of signaling disapproval. But later he told Korean media: “I don’t think Korea can revoke what it agreed with the US so easily,” adding that he supports dialogue with China over the matter.

The Korean population remains split over THAAD. A December poll suggested that 51% of Koreans disapprove of THAAD, while 34% support it. The pseudonymous TK, a Korean-American law professor in Washington, DC who has been blogging about Korea for ten years, says its detractors view it as “a major piece of military equipment belonging to a country other than yours, parked in your country.”

Other critics question how effective the system will be at preventing missile attacks from the North.

“The threat from North does not come from North Korean nukes, it comes from the Soviet-era artillery all along the DMZ (the 250-kilometer de-militarized zone that separates the South from the North). THAAD cannot defend against Soviet-era artillery,” says Brendan M. Howe, a professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “Really, it doesn’t improve South Korea’s security at all.”

Yet THAAD’s supporters urge its critics to consider the erratic and unpredictable nature of the North Korean regime.

If people say THAAD is ineffective but it will antagonize North Korea and China, well, that’s contradictory, because if it’s ineffective then the first parties that would be celebrating would be North Korea and China, because of the opportunity cost,” says Dr. Daniel Pinkston, who lectures in international relations at Troy University. “If the US and Korea just dumped a billion dollars in to something that doesn’t work, that’s money that didn’t go into something that was effective.”

Arguably, THAAD threatens to upend South Korea’s relationship with Beijing far more than its relationship with Pyongyang. China’s opposition to it ostensibly stems from the surveillance threat it poses towards China’s military, leaving its own missile development vulnerable to US intelligence.

And while China poses no direct immediate military threat to South Korea, it has considerable economic influence over it. Over the past China has issued pseudo-sanctions towards Korean industries ranging from tourism to entertainment to video games. One report estimated that the retaliation could cost South Korea’s GDP growth to drop more than a full percentage point due to such retaliations.

Yesterday (March 14), Moon called on China to “immediately stop” its economic retaliations against Korea, adding, “We should complain about what needs to be complained about and we should make diplomatic efforts to persuade China.”

Continuing with THAAD could further hurt the Korean economy, which is suffering from slowing growth. But since the deployment of THAAD has already begun, rolling it back tells Beijing that Seoul will acquiesce to its demands. If they cave, says Pinkston, “then on the next bilateral issue that comes up three months, six months, or a year from now, the South Koreans have no backbone.”

Howe says that he doesn’t anticipate Moon will rollback THAAD completely, as pressure to maintain South Korea’s strong relationship with the US ultimately will prevail. That will inevitably cause Moon to lose some support among his constituents. However, he adds it’s possible Moon will attempt to alter the terms of THAAD with the US, or perhaps try to strike a deal with China.

Even if he decides that THAAD has to remain, maybe there is a way he can allay Chinese fears over the radar penetration,” says Howe. “It’s going to be a very difficult negotiation but I think that is the only way forward.”

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