The violent clashes between protesters and riot police in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, Thursday vividly showed what the nation lacks in coping with the crisis caused by North Korea’s nuclear and missile menace -- unity.
In fact, the controversial deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile exposed some common problems in Korean society-- government indecisiveness, not-in-my-backyard selfishness, intervention by activists and domination of populism.
It was in July last year that the South Korean and US governments decided to bring in a THAAD battery as a countermeasure to the North’s growing missile threat.
The Park Geun-hye administration started to bungle the move by shifting the site of the THAAD battery, giving in to protests from residents. It only further emboldened the residents around the new site -- a golf course -- and activists.
As the protesters -- spreading rumors that the missile shield system’s electromagnetic waves and noise could have harmful effects on the environment -- dug in their heels, the military had to bypass roadblocks set up by them or rely on airlift for transportation of equipment and personnel. Only two of the six launchers for the THAAD battery had been in place until Thursday due to government inaction and fierce protests.
The protesters’ unlawful acts were fanned by leftist ideologues and politicians who tried to take a political advantage of the issue in the midst of a massive corruption scandal that resulted in the ouster of Park and the subsequent election of Moon Jae-in as new president.
In the initial stage of the election, Moon opposed the deployment of the US missile interceptor system in line with the prevailing sentiment of his core support groups --liberals and advocates of reconciliatory policy toward North Korea. As the campaign proceeded, Moon needed to expand his support base toward centrists and moderate rightists and eased up on his opposition.
Upon election, however, Moon did not hide what was on his real mind. Insisting that the Defense Ministry – then headed by a minister appointed by the deposed Park – kept him in the dark over the arrival of four additional launchers for the THAAD battery, he ordered a full investigation.
Then he called for a full assessment of the THAAD system’s impact on the environment, which, in reality, put a hold on the full deployment of the system. Moon apparently wanted to buy time, believing that he – as the inheritor of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s engagement policies -- would be able to persuade the North to cease provocations soon afterward and preclude the necessity of the THAAD battery.
It was only after the North tested what it claimed to be its first intercontinental ballistic missile in July for a reluctant Moon to order “tentative” deployment of the four launchers. A compliant Environment Ministry gave the go-ahead Monday, paving the way for the military to put the launchers into the site.
All in all, it took more than 14 months for the military to put the THAAD system in place, while in the meantime the North kept up its provocative acts – firing tens of ballistic missiles, including two ICBMs, and detonating what it claimed to be a miniaturized hydrogen bomb that can be mounted in an ICBM.
Now that all the equipment has been put in place, China, as expected, is mounting pressure on the Seoul government. The Foreign Ministry and state-controlled media bolstered criticism of the South Korean government for ignoring China’s opposition.
China will likely step up its retaliations against South Korea. Chinese media played up the clashes in Seongju and likewise will continue to use some South Koreans’ opposition to THAAD as the basis for their South Korea bashing.
One THAAD battery is not the only means to protect the nation from the North’s nuclear and missile threats. But it is effective for shielding at least a part of the country from certain North Korean missiles and more importantly, symbolizes alliance between South Korea and the US, which is the most effective deterrent to the North. Opposition would only please North Korea and China.