Widespread public backlash has been surging throughout South Korea since it was uncovered that Park Geun-hye, President of South Korea, had been seeking the advice of a woman named Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of an alleged shamanistic cult leader (!) Allowing Choi access to classified state information without any security clearance and an ability to influence decisions of national importance, Park’s apparent egregiously poor judgement shocked the South Korean people. Furthermore, it came to light that Choi had been exploiting her close relationship with the President to exhort charity donations from South Korean conglomerates and make personal financial gain. South Korea is not stranger to corruption scandals, but this one differentiates itself by its sheer oddness.
The embattled Park Geun-hye’s approval rating has sunk to single digits. Her apology broadcast to the country fell on deaf ears and attempts she made to reshuffle to the cabinet were not enough to quell the deeply aggrieved citizenry. Tens of thousands of South Koreans have been taking part in protests across the country demanding President Park Geun-hye to resign.
As the political forces in South Korea struggle with the fallout from this political scandal, many of the country’s important political decisions are halting to a standstill. Ultimately, the dynastic, authoritarian rule of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un may be the main benefactor of this political chaos.
The end of THAAD?
A constant worry in the minds of South Koreans is the existential threat posed by North Korea and its increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear capabilities. In response to this growing threat, the US and South Korea officially announced in the summer of 2016 that they would be constructing a highly sophisticated missile defence system in central South Korea, with the capabilities to shoot down missile attacks from Pyeongyang. The defence system, named Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is planned near the city of Seongju, in North Gyeongsang Province.
Since the US revealed it was considering South Korea as a potential location for its THAAD technologies back in mid-2014, this issue has garnered much hostility and protest from many angles, both domestic and international. Locals from the proposed site worry that radiation emitted by THAAD’s high-powered radar will jeopardise the health of 50,000 residents and harm the region’s agricultural output. Seongju residents have sustained a protracted campaign of protests against the anti-missile installation, with demonstrations that include shaving their heads in protest and signing a petition for the White House to address the issue.
Opposition political parties raised serious concern about the unilateral nature of the decision by Park’s cabinet: the joint US-South Korea agreement on THAAD was finalised without first consulting South Korea’s National Assembly. Park’s cabinet argued that the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and South Korea afforded the President the right to forge ahead with unilateral action. For many in opposition, this raised questions concerning the fundamentally uneven nature of the US-South Korean alliance. Representative Seol Hun of the Minjoo Party stated:
“Until now, anything carried out in the name of the US-ROK alliance was given an automatic green light but the THAAD issue clearly demonstrates that U.S. and South Korean interests are not always aligned.”
Would THAAD increase rather than decrease the safety of South Korea?
Many people opposed to THAAD deployment find the administration’s Mutual Defense Treaty reasoning deficient and argue the THAAD programme between the US and South Korea would significantly deteriorate the security environment of South Korea, rather than increase protection levels in the country. THAAD has antagonised North Korea, China and to an extent, Russia. All three countries contend it would heighten regional tensions, rather than help resolve the peninsula’s nuclear issue. Russia has repeatedly repudiated the deployment; Russian Ambassador to South Korea argued THAAD would “neither lend any support to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, nor any benefit to resolving nuclear issues on the peninsula”.
China has been highly vocal in its opposition to the missile defence system, arguing THAAD’s anti-missile interceptors will not provide any real protection for South Korea. Instead the purpose of the deployment is to install an American-controlled radar that will be capable of closely monitoring Chinese territory or even tracking Chinese missiles. China contends that the US move to place THAAD radars in proximity to China will neutralise the country’s nuclear deterrence by gaining information that would be unavailable by any other means.
This stern defiance to THAAD fits in with China’s overall appraisal of Asia’s relations with the West, labelling the American pivot to Asia – and the military alliance forged under US auspices on the continent – as anachronistic legacies of the Cold War. It regards THAAD as one more example of America’s brazen containment strategy to extinguish China’s peaceful rise on the global stage.
US military officials attempted to placate such worries articulated by China, contending that THAAD was being installed “directly in response to the threat posed by North Korea in its nuclear and missile programs” and was “ purely a defensive measure… not aimed at any other party other than North Korea… nor capable of threatening China’s security interests”.
China is not convinced. And it is threatening to punish South Korea economically if it continues with THAAD deployment.
It’s the economy, stupid?
In response to the THAAD decision in July, the Chinese government blocked the broadcast of Korean dramas, banned Korean celebrities and cancelled K Pop concerts (so cruel). One anti-THAAD bloc in South Korea argues that fallout from such political tension over THAAD and US co-operations would negatively impact South Korea’s economic interests in all aspects of the economy, not just cultural sectors.
The dependence of South Korea on China for economic reasons could make it vulnerable if Chinese impose sanctions on its exports. This would essentially put to waste all the efforts that Park has made courting China under her administration. When Park was elected into office in 2013, she embarked on a conscious effort to inculcate warm Sino-South Korean relations. Since 2010, the total size of Sino-South Korean bilateral trade has eclipsed the volume of trade that South Korea has with America and Japan combined. South Korea contributes to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), signed free trade agreement with China in 2015 and Park’s attendance at the Chinese anniversary commemorating seventy years since the end of World War II in September 2015 highlighted the extent to which their relationship had evolved.
Could South Korea instigate a revival in Sino-North Korean relations (for better or for worse)?
As well as economic gains, one core aim of President Park’s détente was to garner sufficient momentum to translate bilateral economic co-operation into political co-operation. Park was concerned with one particular political issues that preoccupies South Korea’s foreign policy – North Korea.
However, despite these newfound spheres of collaboration, China’s seemingly lenient position on North Korea has remained an ever-present obstacle on the horizon for Sino-South Korean relations. Despite conceding to the “full and complete implementation” of UN Resolution 2270, following North Korea’s continued testing of nuclear weapons, Beijing’s actions towards the Kim regime have constantly dismayed Seoul. In fact, it wasa China’s failure to restrain North Korea and its nuclear adventurism that ultimately spurred Park’s decision to deploy THAAD missiles in July 2016 and pivot back to the US sphere for security reasons.
China’s security dilemma
China is in at a seeming impasse regarding North Korea’s precocious nuclear adventurism, unsure about how much pressure to exert on North Korea. A high degree of pressure could further alienate North Korea from China and invoke the ire of a more antagonistic Kim regime that acts in ways to intentionally harm Chinese strategic interests. North Korea is not afraid to act in ways to show the world it is not a mere proxy state of China.
China is also gravely concerned about the prospects of the Kim regime’s collapse if it were to apply too much pressure. One study estimates that about 3 million North Korean refugees would cross the China-North Korea border in the wake of a sudden dissolution of North Korea. Such a massive inflow of North Korean refugees could destroy the regional economy and foster perilous social instability. In conjunction with the potential loss of control over nuclear weapons, factional fighting or even civil war within North Korea, China is reluctant to commit to any course of action which could precipitate the end of the Kim regime.
If, however, China applies only a small degree of pressure on North Korea – and therefore implicitly condones North Korea’s dangerously destabilising behaviours in a region already fraught with suspicion and historical animosities – this would lead South Korea to distrust China for not sufficiently employing its economic leverage over the weak North Korea country, and further enhance the South’s alliance with the US.
North Korea’s fifth nuclear test: a reminder of South Korea’s most existential threat
Domestic outcry to THAAD was muted after North Korea announced it had successfully completed its fifth – and purportedly strongest – nuclear test in September, 2016. North Korean sources stated that the test demonstrated they had successfully created a “nuclear warhead that has been standardised to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic rockets”. South Korean experts estimated the blast to be upward of ten kilotonnes. To give context, the 1945 atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima to the ground was fifteen kilotonnes.
Confronted with this terrifying new realisation of North Korea’s potentially cataclysmic capabilities, the Park administration highlighted the necessity for taking all possible steps to ensure South Korea’s “survival”. Such steps should take precedence over fears of isolating economic relations with China or causing regional imbalance. The latest nuclear test appeared to minimise the domestic obstacles the deployment of THAAD.
But now, the biggest obstacle to Park’s THAAD ambitions is Park herself.
South Korean politics in a “post-Choi” era?
In the wake of revelations about Choi-gate, is progress on THAAD dead in the water? Park is regarded by many as politically toxic. Every decision she made during her tenure is now being called into question. Was the decision affected by Choi’s advice or unwarranted influence? Her political currency has plummeted and many of her initiatives are now marooned. Opposition parties are poised to defeat Park in the country’s upcoming Presidential elections in 2017 – or possibly win power in the case of Park’s sudden impeachment. The two main opposition parties, the Democratic Party of Korea (currently holding 121 out of 300 in the National Assembly) and the People’s Party (38 out of 300 seats) have vocally opposed the deployment THAAD previously.
The next President will have to balance between a China and North Korea and will need to either build upon Park’s attempts at regional détente, place itself more squarely in the US sphere for protection or forge a new path for South Korea in this tumultuous time in the Asia-Pacific. Each option will elicit a negative reaction, both regionally and internationally, so it will be a delicate balancing act with disasterous consequences should it backfire.
One thing for sure is the North Korea will be watching the political scandal unfold south of its border, relish in the fact that THAAD will not be the main priority of the government and exploit any weaknesses shown by a South Korean administration battling for survival.