South Korea and the US on Friday held their first defense ministers’ talks after the inauguration of the Donald Trump government. According to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, their interest focused on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense battery, a US antimissile defense system that they had agreed to deploy in South Korea. In the talks, the defense ministers reaffirmed that THAAD would be deployed this year, as planned.
Dozens of members of anti-US and anti-THAAD groups picketed in front of the main gate of the Ministry of National Defense where the defense ministers’ talks was held. The groups have condemned the US for threatening peace on the Korean Peninsula, but never demanded North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un give up his ambition to make atomic bombs and ballistic missiles.
The anti-US group, one of about 1,500 civic groups which have jointly organized a nationwide movement to remove Park from office over a massive peddling of power scandal involving her and her confidante Choi Soon-sil, denounced the THAAD deployment during a protest against Park. It claimed falsely that the THAAD installation goes against the demands of about 10 million anti-Park protestors. The group has led protests against the construction of a US base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, and a naval base on Jeju Island.
Anti-THAAD protests, which have been held as part of candlelight rallies calling for the ouster of Park, are worrisome.
Considering their history, in which they have opposed America almost blindly, their protests are nothing new. But their exploitation of anti-Park protests are not negligible. Their anti-THAAD chants do not agree with the candlelight protests which have had a total attendance of about 10 million to Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul. The citizens participated in the protests because they were angered by the Choi scandal, not because they opposed the deployment of THAAD in Korea. Their demands have nothing to do with the antimissile system.
Just because a large number of people protested against Park does not mean the majority of the public opposes the THAAD deployment. According to the results of a survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a leading independent policy think tank in Korea, released in August last year, 53.6 percent supported THAAD deployment in Korea, with 36.3 percent opposing it.
The biggest reason for supporting it was the necessity to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats (about 70 percent). The No. 1 reason for opposing it was distrust of the government (about 42 percent). Some 20 percent of opponents cited damage to South Korea’s relations with China as their main reason. The major reasons for opposing the system are more related to anti-government sentiment and concern for China, a key ally to North Korea, than to North Korean nuclear and missile threats that the system is supposed to fend off.
Anti-US groups have consistently opposed America, THAAD or not, and they will continue to do so. Probably more concerning than anti-American activists are the politicians. Opposition lawmakers and presidential candidates, who have participated in protests to remove Park from office, should act prudently not to distort the demands of the protestors. Presidential candidates in particular should avoid blind anti-Americanism and come up with down-to-earth policies that can deter North Korean nuclear threats effectively.
THAAD is a defensive weapon to protect the Korean people and the US military stationed in Korea from North Korean nuclear and missile attacks. North Korea is an isolated, despotic state which rules its residents with the reign of terror. It threatens to conduct more atomic bomb and missile tests. It says it is in the final stage of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the US soil. Washington does not exclude pre-emptive strikes at its nuclear facilities, and also vows to intercept a North Korean missile if it launches one. Pyongyang threatens to start a war if the US intercepts its missile. Under the Trump government, the US is likely to clash with China head-on for hegemony in Northeast Asia. In this situation, attempts to drive a wedge between the US and Korea will endanger South Korea’s national security.
Citizens should not let anti-THAAD groups exploit their protests to their advantage. As far as national security is concerned, both the national unity and the alliance with the US should not crack.