Political parties divided over diplomatic impact of THAAD deployment

July 11, 2016

SEOUL, July 11 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s ruling and opposition parties remained divided over the latest decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in the country, with smaller parties expressing concerns over diplomatic fallouts with China and Russia, political pundits said Monday.

Last week, Seoul and Washington agreed to station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to better counter Pyongyang’s ever-growing missile threats. Moscow and Beijing have been opposing the move, claiming it will undermine the strategic balance in the region.

“We cannot help being worried over the strong opposition from China and Russia, along with the possible economic restrictions that can be implemented by Beijing (on South Korea),” said Kim Jong-in, the interim head of the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea. China is South Korea’s No. 1 trading partner.

“It is also true that the majority of the public remains suspicious over the necessity of THAAD. They are questioning whether the system can effectively defend the country from the North’s missiles,” Kim added.

Minjoo also expressed its discontent last week on the deployment, but said, “It will not oppose” the move in an apparent bid to appease the conservative voters. Political pundits said Kim’s latest remark also reflects the party’s effort to remain as neutral as possible on the issue.

The minor People’s Party, however, continued to bash the move to deploy the THAAD system.

Defense Minister Han Min-koo speaks during a plenary meeting of the Defense Committee on the National Assembly in Seoul on July 11, 2016, about Seoul and Washington's decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. (Yonhap)

Defense Minister Han Min-koo speaks during a plenary meeting of the Defense Committee on the National Assembly in Seoul on July 11, 2016, about Seoul and Washington’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. (Yonhap)

“South Korea is an ox in a ditch. We need to eat the grass of the U.S., but we also have to feed on the grass of China,” said Rep. Park Jie-won, the minor party’s floor leader. “Although we cannot think of the Korean Peninsula without the Seoul-Washington alliance, we cannot ignore the economy as well.”

The party whip added he also urged Minjoo to express clear actions against the plan, adding its current stance on the deployment will damage its identity as an opposition party.

Ahn Cheol-soo, the former head of People’s Party, claimed that the government should put the deployment of the THAAD to a referendum, although both the ruling party and Minjoo are opposed to such a plan.

The ruling Saenuri Party said it will continue to maintain its stance to make national security its top priority.

“China must respect our government’s decision on security matters. They won’t protect South Korea in case of an emergency,” said Kim Young-woo, a Saenuri lawmaker who heads the parliament’s defense committee. “It is misleading to consider the case as a diplomatic issue between the U.S. and China.

“No country holds the right to criticize the decision made by South Korea to protect its people,” Kim said, adding China should first make efforts to induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear development and missile tests.

Chung Jin-suk, Saenuri’s floor leader, echoed the view, adding that the deployment of the system is based on the country’s sovereignty.

“North Korea’s nuclear issues must be solved in a strategic and sovereign manner,” Chung said. “A disguised peace cannot protect South Korea (from Pyongyang’s threats).”

Last month, North Korea claimed the successful launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, saying it has the capacity to strike U.S. forces in the Pacific region. On Saturday, the North also test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off its east coast, marking the fifth attempt since last May, according to the South Korean military.

South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo, meanwhile, said during the parliament defense committee’s meeting that the THAAD deployment issue will not be affected by remarks coming out of Beijing and Moscow.

“As the deployment of the THAAD was decided in a sovereign manner with the aim of defending the country and the people from North Korea’s nuclear missile threats, the issue should not be changed due to opinions of neighboring countries,” Han said.

The minister said he has reached the conclusion that the deployment does not legally call for a parliamentary approval, and ruled out that the system will adversely impact public health or the environment.

Han added the costs of deploying the THAAD will be taken up by Washington, while South Korea will only be providing the land. The defense chief, however, declined to comment on the potential location of the THAAD deployment.

Government insiders said that the regional government where the missile system is to be deployed will be notified in advance, which will be followed by public hearings to discuss all pertinent issues.

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