With two weeks to go until South Korea’s presidential elections, the United States is moving swiftly to install the THAAD missile defense system, but the system’s opponents are still putting up a fight. Reuters reports on the controversy as the U.S. military moves key components of THAAD into place:
The liberal politician expected to win South Korea’s election, Moon Jae-in, has called for a delay in the deployment, saying the new administration should make a decision after gathering public opinion and more talks with Washington.
A spokesman for Moon said moving the parts to the site “ignored public opinion and due process” and demanded it be suspended.
Television footage showed military trailers carrying equipment, including what appeared to be launch canisters, to the battery site.
Protesters shouted and hurled water bottles at the vehicles over lines of police holding them back.
The Pentagon said the system was critical to defend South Korea and its allies against North Korean missiles and deployment would be completed “as soon as feasible”.
The picture here is not a pretty one, creating the impression that the Pentagon is rushing THAAD into place over the objections of the populace. But as we’ve suggested before, that is only a partial picture. There has always been a domestic constituency within South Korea that resents the U.S. military role there and is inclined toward dovish engagement with the North. And many of the protesters here are local residents upset that the THAAD equipment is coming to their neighborhood, suggesting that this is in part a simple case of NIMBYism.
It is true that Moon Jae-in, who favors engagement with Pyongyang, has been growing his lead in the polls and becoming more outspoken against THAAD. But even he is walking a fine line, objecting to the timeline of its deployment and calling for more consultation with Washington, not demanding it be scrapped outright. Moon likely realizes that his hands will be tied on the issue, hence his hesitation to call for a full reversal. As a former presidential adviser tells NK News, “South Korean candidates are aware that the deployment is irreversible, and so is Beijing.”
That said, the U.S. could certainly stand to improve its optics on coordination as it braces for a new government in Seoul. Even Ahn Cheol-soo, a more U.S.-friendly candidate, has objected to the late-night THAAD deployment; meanwhile, South Korean media have raised concerns that Trump is “freezing out Seoul” by talking with Japan and China’s leaders on Monday, but not South Korea’s acting president. The U.S. may well succeed in creating facts on the ground before South Korea heads to the polls, but Trump will need to build trust and goodwill with the next government if he hopes to resolve the escalating crisis.