Stuck in the middle with ThaadTwenty-three years ago, President Bill Clinton clandestinely considered a plan for a “surgical strike” against the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea, a clear escalation of the conflict in Northeast Asia. Later, it allegedly turned out that the strike plan was “on the table but very far back on the table,” according to William Perry, then the U.S. defense secretary.
Last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis said at the Shangri-La Dialogue that the Trump administration would continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until North Korea “finally and permanently abandons its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.” Is it safe to say that President Donald Trump will by no means take the military option to resolve the North’s nuclear problems? Probably not.
On April 13, his 77th day in office while having dinner in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump pressed the cruise missile button, sending 59 Tomahawk missiles to strike an airbase in Syria. European and Middle Eastern key allies, as well as the foreign policy establishment in Washington, applauded the raid, as if there were a consensus among those in the anti-Trump camp.
Critics of Trump’s unilateral assault on Syria were portrayed as heartless in the face of the gassing of children, just as opponents of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield in South Korea are demonized as being indifferent to North Korea’s nuclear threats. If the communist regime conducts another nuclear test, what will the liberal pundits do? Objection to the American missile shield can be more easily described as a threat to the security alliance at a time of national crisis.
Moon Jae-in, the liberal president of South Korea, was elected on an explicit promise to review the deployment process of Thaad. During the campaign, he clearly opposed the decision, calling it “hasty.” In fact, the decision to deploy the controversial system in the middle of an election was made by former President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted from office due to a corruption scandal that shook South Korea’s business and political elite.
On May 29, Moon instructed the government to investigate how four extra Thaad launchers had been brought into the country without any disclosure to the public. A few days later, the presidential office tried to reassure the United States that Moon’s government would not scrap a deal to host a missile defense system that has angered China.
“My order for a probe on Thaad is purely a domestic measure, and I want to be clear that it is not about trying to change the existing decision or sending a message to the United States,” Moon told visiting U.S. Senator Dick Durbin on May 31. Moon’s top security adviser flew to Washington to explain the investigation and consult on the upcoming summit between Moon and Trump. Amid the Pentagon’s remarks that it had been “very transparent” with the South Korean government on Thaad deployment, Moon’s timely gestures were enough to indicate that Seoul does not intend to stop its deployment.
The Moon government has made plain that the solid alliance does not take a back seat to security interests. Rather, it will be enhanced by mutual partnerships that have remained over six decades, according to the presidential office.
Nevertheless, right-wing pundits have warned Moon to abandon that promise and “behave responsibly” as a leader. Opponents of the Moon government also point out that Thaad deployment was decided by an ROK-U.S. agreement before the Moon government took office on May 10. In the modern relationship between Seoul and Washington, the security alliance has become the conservatives’ bible.
From the perspective of alliance proponents, Moon’s general criticism of the alliance has left an indelible impression on the United States, even though Moon did not say that he wanted South Korea to rebalance the alliance. Will the Moon government, then, likely debunk the myth of the security alliance, which has been unquestionably solid over the past six decades?
In truth, the security alliance, originally established in 1954 after the 1950-53 Korean War as a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia, has frequently come out on top in the debate over its effectiveness, credibility and long-term durability. Trump has repeatedly hectored South Korea publicly about its military spending as if the United States were able to refuse its commitment to the defense of South Korea. Trump’s philistinism has eventually put South Koreans at odds with the United States, though it won’t be the coup de grace for the alliance’s strong bonds.
Contrary to the general perceptions of American pundits over Thaad, the Moon government finds it necessary to look into regulatory clauses when it brings Thaad into Korean territory. The deployment is not amenable to simple military purposes, nor can it be made with lightning speed by only a few top military officials. Deployment requires a combination of political, military and diplomatic ramifications, as well as environmental effects around the deployment site.
President Moon certainly faces unrelenting pressure from various quarters to act responsibly. He is no troublemaker. He judges, rightly, that Thaad deployment will be his most difficult challenge. He should be aware that the decision could have unintended consequences for the region’s balance of power.
*The author is vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.