Coping with Thaad oppositionsThe government has decided to deploy the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system in a U.S. military base in South Korea. China and Russia are strongly protesting. As Korea is sharply divided over the consequences, our foreign policy faces a crisis.
Korean diplomacy responding to China and Russia’s reactions is quite deplorable — regardless of the pros and cons of deployment — because Seoul’s handling of the issue has only fanned China and Russia’s opposition.
South Korea’s defense has not been strong enough to counter North Korean missile threats. Under such circumstances, a normal response would be making plans to supplement what’s lacking, bring public opinion together and pursue necessary diplomacy. But that’s not how it went.
When the issue was first raised over a decade ago, the focus of the debate was not South Korean security but whether it should be included in the U.S. missile defense system. After it became a political issue, politicians, military and government officials were all reluctant to address the concern. They knew lower-tier defense was not enough, but only proposed to develop a Korean defense system, whose chance of success was uncertain.
Then the USFK expressed a concern to Korean military authorities, who had agreed to it, but it was reluctant to raise the issue due to political sensitivity. The USFK decided to consider the Thaad deployment on its own. That’s the run-up to the announcement in 2014 by USFK Commander General Curtis Scaparrotti of the deployment in a U.S. base in the South.
When his remark stirred the public, the Korean government focused on covering up the issue. He said that there had been no official consultation with Seoul but suggested the deployment to the United States. But Korean authorities claimed that there had been no agreement as there had been no official consultation. Seoul’s position was that there had been no request from the United States, and therefore, there had been no consultation and no decision. The “Three NOs” became Seoul’s slogan on middle-tier defense. In fact, General Scaparrotti implied that there had been “unofficial discussion,” and since they shared the need, he had proposed the deployment to Washington.
The Three NOs became a comfortable haven for all. It was an easy excuse to slack off when it came to diplomacy with China and Russia. If Korea had set middle-tier defense as a major security agenda, and negotiated with Washington, Beijing and Moscow, then China and Russia would have perceived it as Korea’s security concern.
But Seoul adhered to the 3 NOs for several years, and China and Russia believe that it was not related to Korea’s security. They think Thaad is a strategic project of the United States, and Korea was pressured by Uncle Sam. As they suspected Korea would someday allow the deployment, China and Russia pressed Korea to make a wise judgment as an independent nation.
Since that suspicion came true, China and Russia now demand that Korea take responsibility. Why did Korea respond so ambiguously? It is due to its unique foreign policy and security mechanism. As the public is divided over ideological and political factions, the argument has escalated. Politicians sensitive to populism are reluctant to address the issue, while bureaucrats shy away from it. As all want to avoid sensitive issues, they are tempted to appease the public with sweet slogans.
Now, what should we do? Consequences are unavoidable, but the government needs to make it clear that this is about Korea’s national security. The rhetoric of the “3 Nos” must stop. The authorities need to break away from bureaucratic passiveness and not hide behind America just because Thaad belongs to the U.S. Forces. Korea needs to actively respond and negotiate.
When we have a new perspective, we can have a clear stance on excessive demands. China said the security of other countries should not be sacrificed for the security of own country. It is targeting the United States. But it can be applied to South Korea, as well. We should not be demand sacrifice when we do not have sufficient preparation against the North’s missile threats.
Russia mentions the measures that it took against Romania and Poland for their cooperating with the establishment of the U.S. missile defense. But they are different from Korea. Romania and Poland did not have missile threats coming from their other halves.
Korean society’s Thaad discussion must begin from security. It should not begin with conservative, progressive, pro-China or pro-America stances. It would be wrong to focus on retaliations by China and Russia rather than security. Beijing and Moscow would press more to make the Korean public more divided. Politicians, the media and civil groups need to keep this in mind.
We must take the case as an opportunity to save Korean diplomacy from the trap of political populism and bureaucratic indifference. It has become a usual practice to avoid challenges and present sweet slogans. The government reiterated that it would keep the market closed when negotiating rice imports during the Uruguay Round and opened the market at the last minute. This should not happen again.
Populist political powers and evasive bureaucrats are easily friends. This tie must be broken. Only then will Korea’s diplomacy not be swept up by PR and media plays. Political powers need to pay attention. We can find solace if the crisis gives us a chance to correct Korea’s chronic problem.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 14, Page 29
*The author, former head of the Office of Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, is a visiting professor of politics and diplomacy at Seoul National University.