It was announced recently that the new administration under Moon Jae-in is suspending the deployment of further THAAD launchers, despite more missile tests by the North.
Components of the missile defense system were first put in place in May, but local residents have voiced their opposition to the plan, saying that it could be extremely dangerous to those living in the area. Some experts have also hinted that putting THAAD into operation could make South Korea an even bigger target.
An even bigger part of the controversy is that it was recently discovered that additional launchers had been brought into the country and were being stored at an American military facility without the knowledge of the new president and his cabinet.
A call for the assessment was made on June 5 in the area where the four additional launchers were supposed to be placed, sparking concerns that Moon has already come under the heavy influence of China, South Korea’s number one regional trading partner.
China has long been opposed to the deployment of the anti-missile defence system, arguing that it hinders regional stability, and could even pose a threat to Chinese missile defence systems. China also worries that it could lead to wider deployment in the region, for example, in Japan.
The influence of the Chinese was felt from the beginning of the deployment, as an economic embargo was placed on South Korea, leading to a temporary freeze in relations between the two countries.
It should not be forgotten that Moon was voted in as the liberal candidate in the election, and most of his supporters were and are against the full deployment of the missile defence system. Two factors of importance which can’t be overlooked are that Moon has a “far, far less hawkish stance on North Korea than Washington”, and is a career human rights lawyer.
He is looking to improve relations with North Korea, including reopening the Kaesong industrial complex on the Northern side of the border that the previous president had said was funneling money to Kim Jong-un’s regime in Pyongyang.”
Another concern over THAAD is the role being played by the defence ministry. The incumbent defence minister, Han Min-koo, who is also the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a former army general. The post has not been held by a civilian since 1961.
Traditionally, the commander-in-chief of the military has had wide ranging powers to make national defence decisions, thus THAAD was approved while former president Park was in office without the discretion of the National Assembly.
The delay of the deployment could have three significant consequences.
Firstly, the United States could “execute a phased withdrawal from the region”, which many think would be a mistake.
Secondly, North Korea could, and most likely would be encouraged to continue its missile testing at will, thanks to the “lack of a coherent strategy between Beijing and Washington.”
Finally, Moon could be looking for a “fresh approach” with regards to China-South Korea relations. With Donald Trump forwarding an “America first” policy, closer ties between the regional nations would be of benefit, especially in the areas of the economy and security.
According to a recently published report, Trump is furious with Moon over the decision to delay the deployment of THAAD.
The two leaders are due to have a summit in the near future, as Moon will travel to Washington to meet with the American president, with THAAD sure to be at the top of the agenda.
It will be very interesting to see how recent events will affect the summit meeting, and whether Moon will renege on some of his recent statements, in an attempt to keep the U.S.-South Korea military alliance intact.
Moon only won 41 per cent of the vote in the election, and a turn toward China could have extremely negative consequences for the new government.
It seems that South Korea is now at a crossroads. What happens in the near future could ultimately determine the course of events on the Peninsula in the years to come.
Will Moon take a harder line against the Kim regime, or will he consider dialogue in an attempt to ease tensions which are now at their highest point in years?
There has been some speculation in recent weeks that Moon will enter into talks with the North with no preconditions, despite ongoing ballistic tests and the threat of further development of North Korea’s nuclear program.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear - the situation is sure to remain tense for both North and South Korea, as well as all major players involved into the not too distant future, and could decide the course of world affairs well into next year.
The hope is that armed conflict will be avoided at all costs, and that negotiation will win out in the end, but for now, there is certainly no end to the hostility in sight.