President doubles down on selling Thaad to critics

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President doubles down on selling Thaad to critics

President Park Geun-hye vowed on Tuesday to make a more aggressive effort to convince opponents of the deployment of a controversial U.S.-led anti-missile system in the southeastern region, promising to meet with lawmakers and local government heads.

Park hosted a cabinet meeting in the morning and addressed the continuing controversy surrounding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. After the rural town of Seongju in North Gyeongsang was chosen last month as the site to host the U.S. Forces Korea’s Thaad battery, residents have strongly protested the decision. They fear the North’s attack on the base and also showed concerns that the electromagnetic waves emitted from the Thaad radar are harmful to humans, despite government assurance that there are no heath risks.

“My heart is burned down with the continuing controversy surrounding the Thaad deployment,” said Park, “although the North is steadily improving its capabilities of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.”

Park said months of site surveys and simulations showed that there are no health hazards.

“But various rumors are spreading, rather than the clearly-proven scientific facts,” Park said. “The root of national security is being shaken and I am worried about this.”

Park spent one-third of her opening remarks at the cabinet meeting trying to persuade the public to accept the Thaad deployment. She even made an emotional appeal.

“The Republic of Korea belongs to you and the next generation,” she said. “I have lost my parents in tragedies. The only mission that I have left as president is protecting the country and the people from various threats.”

Park’s parents, former President Park Chung Hee and Yuk Young-soo, were both assassinated. Yuk was shot and killed by a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer during his assassination attempt of President Park in 1974. Park was assassinated in 1979 by Kim Jae-gyu, the chief of his own security service.

Her remarks appear to be targeting older, more conservative residents of Daegu and North Gyeongsang, who are known to be sentimental to her parents. The areas are the Park family’s hometown and political stronghold.

Park then said she will meet with lawmakers and local government heads of Seongju to convince them.

Park is scheduled to meet with some lawmakers representing Daegu and North Gyeongsang later this week, a senior Saenuri Party official told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday. “First-term lawmakers of the region requested a meeting with the president through Senior Political Affairs Secretary Kim Jae-won,” said the source, adding that the lawmakers wanted to discuss sentiments in the region after Seongju was chosen as the Thaad site.

The source said the Blue House was hesitant at first because of the sensitivity of the timing, as the ruling party is scheduled to have the chairmanship election next week, but accepted the request.

The quiet farming town of Seongju, with a population of about 45,000, has become extremely volatile after the government announced last month it was chosen as the Thaad site. Consequently, an angry mob of Seongju residents besieged the prime minister and defense minister during their visit to the town last month to explain the government’s decision. The ruling Saenuri Party’s leadership also visited Seongju and faced fierce protests.

Park’s approval rating has plummeted as the Thaad controversy continues, following on the heels of a corruption scandal involving her top civil affairs secretary. According to the Real Meter poll from July 25 to 27, her approval rating went down to 30.4 percent, 5 percentage-points down from the previous week.

The drop was particularly serious in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, as the rating went down by 10.5 percentage points to 33.1 percent. According to the poll, 63.3 percent of respondents from the region gave a negative evaluation of Park’s performance. It was the first time her positive rating went below 40 percent in the region and also the first time that the negative rating rose above 60 percent.

The People’s Party, the third largest political party, urged the president to visit Seongju and meet with residents there.

“Park must withdraw the deployment plan immediately or consult the National Assembly to resolve the controversy,” Rep. Park Jie-won, floor leader of the People’s Party, said Tuesday morning. “The first step will be the president’s visit to Seongju [where she will] listen to residents’ voices.”

Rep. Park and other People’s Party lawmakers visited Seongju on Monday, receiving a enthusiastic welcome from residents protesting the Thaad deployment.

“The Seongju residents asked the party to participate in their movement to collect 100,000 signatures by Aug. 13 to send a petition to the White House,” he said. “We will seriously consider it today.”

Lawmakers of the progressive opposition Justice Party also visited Seongju on Monday. Five lawmakers from the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea will visit Seongju today and attend a candlelight vigil protest.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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