The militaristic nature of the Obama administration pivot to Asia is fully on display in South Korea. While rarely discussed in the United States media, the South Korean government recently agreed to let the US military station a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in the South Korean city of Seongju. The decision has been strongly criticized by the governments of China and Russia, and fiercely resisted by the people of Seongju.
The US and South Korean governments claim that the battery is needed to help defend South Korea from a possible North Korean missile attack. However, it is far more likely that this decision is part of a broader US effort to strengthen its regional missile defense system and first-strike capacity against China and Russia.
As the Korea analyst Gregory Elich explains, this system is not designed to counter any likely North Korean threat:
The missiles in a THAAD battery are designed to counter incoming ballistic missiles at an altitude ranging from 40 to 150 kilometers. Given North Korea’s proximity, few, if any, missiles fired by the North would attain such a height, given that the point of a high altitude ballistic missile is to maximize distance. Even so, were the North to fire a high altitude ballistic missile from its farthest point, aimed at the concentration of U.S. forces in Pyeongtaek, it would require nearly three and a half minutes for THAAD to detect and counter-launch. In that period, the incoming missile would have already fallen below an altitude of 40 kilometers, rendering THAAD useless. In a conflict with the South, though, North Korea would rely on its long-range artillery, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles, flying at an altitude well below THAAD’s range.
It is also far from certain that the system even works reliably despite Department of Defense approved test results. As Elich points out, “the tests failed to replicate real-world scenarios, so claims made about THAAD’s effectiveness are unproven.”
So, what is the gain for the US in securing South Korean government willingness to host the system? The THAAD battery also comes with a powerful radar system that has two different modes of operation. The first, the terminal mode, is designed to detect incoming missiles and direct counter-missiles. The second, the forward-based mode, is designed to cover a much wider area and is connected to the US-based missile defense system. “[I]n forward-mode a radar at Seongju would be capable of covering much of eastern China, as well as missiles fired from further afield as they fly within its detection range.” In other words, used in forward-mode, the THAAD radar system would greatly enhance the US military’s ability to track and destroy Chinese and Russian missiles, an ability that would significantly contribute to US first-strike capabilities by compromising Chinese or Russian capacities to launch a counter-strike.
Thus, the effort to establish a THAAD battery in South Korea is best understood as a part of the broader US effort to ring China and Russia with missiles and radar systems. The Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space has declared October 1-8 “Keep Space for Peace Week.” In concert with that effort they published the following poster which highlights the aggressive nature of US policy.
The Obama administration is well aware that South Koreans do not want to be dragged into a US confrontation with China or Russia and so it appears likely that the US and South Korean governments conspired to win popular support for the battery by encouraging South Koreans to believe that its sole purpose was to reduce the likelihood of a North Korea missile attack. However, things haven’t worked out as the two governments hoped.
Growing numbers of South Koreans are actively organizing in opposition to the battery. The resistance in Seongju grew so strong that the government was forced to announce that it would consider an alternative location. But the residents of Seongju, joined by a wider social movement, are demanding that the government renounce its willingness to host the battery.
The resistance has been spirited and creative as highlighted in this report from the blog Zoom in Korea:
The online “We the People” petition against THAAD deployment surpassed its goal of 100,000 signatures on August 10. The Seongju residents gathered for their 29th nightly candlelight vigil that evening were beaming with joy. The emcee shouted, “What day is today?” and the residents shouted back in unison, “The day we reached 100,000!” According to the White House petition website, any petition that garners 100,000 signatures in 30 days triggers an official response from the White House within 60 days of the date that the goal is reached.
To be sure, waging an online petition campaign in Seongju was no easy task. Most residents don’t have computers nor read English. The petition requires an email verification step, but most didn’t have email accounts. College students set up booths at the nightly candlelight vigils and patiently helped older residents through the process, starting with opening an email account.
The residents made clear that they are not appealing for sympathy from the White House. The petition campaign was a process of organizing the entire country beyond Seongju to demand that the United States rescind its THAAD decision and exert pressure on the White House.
“Until when do we hold the rain ceremony?” asked Lee Jae-dong, the chair of the Seongju branch of the Korean Peasants League and the emcee of the nightly candlelight vigils. “Until it rains!” replied the crowd. “Until when do we fight THAAD deployment?” he asked. “Until it’s rescinded!” replied Seongju residents in unison.
In August, a Veterans for Peace delegation traveled to South Korea to meet with Koreans resisting the deployment and to learn more about how best to build solidarity. Two members of the delegation were denied entry into the country by South Korean authorities.
We need to do our part in this struggle and not just out of sympathy for Koreans. The THAAD deployment, if successful, can only heighten tensions in the Asia-Pacific region and strengthen those forces in the US that seek to further militarize our own foreign and domestic policies.