Author: Stephen Costello, Asia East
It is possible that under its next President, South Korea will buckle after months of overt Chinese economic pressure and suspend deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, exposing them to further bullying by Beijing. But it is also possible that they will succumb to pressure to deploy the system from impeached former president Park Geun-hye and their US allies Barack Obama and Donald Trump, increasing bilateral and regional tensions beyond their already tense state.
The choice between the two options is a policy vice, forfeiting flexibility and opportunities the new president should have. Either way, he could alienate one of the superpowers that must cooperate to avoid a new Korean, and perhaps regional, conflagration.
But a new president may refuse to make this Hobson’s choice. South Korea has just provided a moving example of how democracy should work in a way that is uniquely South Korean, almost unprecedented and the envy of much of the world. Broad-based civic activism — combined with a relatively free press and a popular consensus and insistence that governing institutions must be accountable to the public — has now emboldened a new generation of South Koreans, to whom the democracy struggles of the 1970s and 1980s are only a historical memory. Six weeks ago, one demonstrator in Seoul expressed an unforgettable modern maturity: ‘We made a mistake electing Park. Now we will have to get her out and try to do this right the next time’. Americans should be taking notes.
Even a relatively inexperienced South Korean President, taking office after the policy upheavals of the past two decades, would not permit their administration to start under a cloud of subservience to China, to the United States or to their disgraced predecessor.
Much public criticism of the impeached president was directed at her support for the THAAD deployment and her inability to resolve the Chinese economic boycott. We cannot expect that the millions who filled the streets since October will sit quietly if the next Blue House occupant – in their eyes – gives in to Beijing or Washington. Instead the new president may decide to do neither, and stand up to both Xi and Trump in order to preserve South Korean sovereignty and put Korea’s weight behind a regional plan to make each party more secure.
Could the new president pull off this high wire act? These high-stakes political and diplomatic moves carry serious risks.
An immediate task is to alter the calculation of Xi Jinping, who apparently thinks China can control Seoul’s policies through economic warfare. Before the THAAD issue is settled, the South Korean president may insist that China clearly and unequivocally end its economic war. He would need to brace for extended losses from the boycott in any case, but a leader with his enormous democratic mandate, following the ouster of President Park, would certainly command Xi’s attention. A political and economic confrontation between China and South Korea is already underway, and the new Korean administration may judge that it should quickly be addressed head-on.
After that, the South Korean president could turn to the THAAD deployment. Experts have minimised the military utility of this one unit, noting that Japan already hosts two and that Chinese missiles could probably defeat the system’s radar in most contingencies. But THAAD’s symbolic and political impact has far outstripped its defence capabilities. If China views its deployment to South Korea as part of the expanding encroachment on eastern China by linked US-allied missile defences, Beijing could feel compelled to upgrade its own small arsenal of nuclear missiles to preserve a credible deterrent against attack.
When THAAD’s lack of military importance is set against the likely plans of a new South Korean president to reenergise diplomatic and economic engagement with North Korea, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and Washington, a Korean decision to keep it in a warehouse — or perhaps even request its removal — may become appealing.
US officials should not be surprised if this happens. Their rush to deploy the system while the public remains bitterly divided over former President Park’s decision to do so, and while her impeachment was pending, has almost guaranteed its rejection. The main opposition party is already preparing for the National Assembly to sue the president in the Constitutional Court in order to force the THAAD decision to go through a normal approval process. They are certainly aware of the political cost if it is accepted as a done deal.
The interconnected issues of THAAD, North Korea and China will define the new president’s single five year term at its start. Serious observers and analysts are increasingly worried about the risk of clashes and even war on the Korean Peninsula, and the role of the South Korean administration will be crucial.
There are ways to play these issues besides the alternatives discussed here. But since the election of George W. Bush in 2000, South Korea’s middle power activism has been suppressed, either by its own leaders or in response to outside pressure. After Park’s impeachment last week, diplomatic creativity could return to the centre of South Korean policy. Only by demanding that both China and the US adopt policies that truly enhance Korea’s security can Korea’s next president best serve his own people, and position the country to expand its contribution to regional problem solving.
Stephen Costello is an independent analyst and consultant and the producer of AsiaEast. He was formerly director of the Korea Program at the Atlantic Council, director of the Kim Dae Jung Peace Foundation, and vice president of Gowran International.