“Rather than contemplating out loud whether the THAAD battery should be stationed in Seongju or a different region, the Blue House and the Defense Ministry should go back to square one and reexamine if the THAAD system is something that South Korea really needs.” This was the response of Seongju residents to President Park Geun-hye after her recent announcement that her government may consider deploying the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system to a different location.
Faced with unexpected opposition from the residents of Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province against the controversial U.S.-South Korean decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense battery in their hometown, President Park suggested on August 4 that she may consider a different location to house the advanced weapon system. She made the remarks during a meeting with 11 Saenuri Party lawmakers from Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, including Representative Yi Wan-young, who represents Seongju.
In a statement released the following day, the Seogju Task Force to Oppose THAAD Deployment said, “For handling the THAAD deployment matter with reckless haste and causing national distress, Defense Minister Han Min-koo should step down immediately, and a new defense minister should reexamine the issue from square one and strictly observe the proper legal procedure.”
It added, “Clearly, the government’s suggestion of a new deployment site is nothing more than an extemporaneous move to deflect public criticism. The residents of Seongju know that the government is putting forth an impossible idea as a so-called alternative with the intention of creating division among us. What we fight for is the complete reversal of the THAAD deployment decision, not merely relocating it to a different location. Never forget that Seongju is Korea and Korea is Seongju.”
Seongju Undeterred by Government Attempt to Stifle Protests
The Defense Ministry has reportedly given time-off to officers and soldiers with friends or family in Seongju so that they can travel there and persuade the residents of Seongju to accept the THAAD deployment decision. And the pro-government media has been misrepresenting Seongju’s opposition to THAAD as a form of narrow-minded nimbyism. Isolating Seongju residents by misrepresenting their demands and accusing all non-Seongju residents who oppose THAAD as “outside agitators” seem to be the Park Geun-hye government’s main strategy to undermine the protests.
But the anti-THAAD opposition in the small agricultural region of Seongju shows no sign of dissipating. On the contrary, in just a few weeks since the government’s announcement of its decision to deploy the THAAD system in Seongju, its residents, mostly melon farmers, have gone through a dramatic change in their political consciousness.
Their chanting still sounds awkward and rhythmically off, but the entire town, young and old, comes together at nightly candlelight vigils, and their numbers continue to grow every night despite the record-breaking heatwave.
“My grandson came home from school and cried, ‘If THAAD comes to our town, all my friends will move away. If they all leave, what about me?'” said an elderly woman during an open mic session of the candlelight vigil, “So we held each other and both cried. And I promised him, ‘Don’t worry. Grandma will stop it from coming here.'”
The traditionally conservative county voted overwhelmingly for Park Geun-hye in the last presidential election. But when the governing Saenuri Party leadership visited Seongju on July 26, the residents held a mock funeral procession for the conservative party and held up signs that “mourned” the president’s death.
All sectors of Seongju society seem to be organized in the fight to oppose THAAD deployment. On July 31, all the healthcare professionals in Seongju County took to the stage during the candlelight vigil to read their collective statement against THAAD. Then three of them shaved their heads as an act of protest. They were followed by the executive officers of the Seongju business improvement association, which also resolved to fight until they achieve nothing less than the reversal of the THAAD deployment decision. Then a resident volunteered to foot the bill for all the printing costs for producing flyers and other educational materials for the campaign.
Buoyed by the residents’ enthusiasm, Seongju County Chief Kim Hyang-gon also stood up and vowed to “meet with the president to convey the sentiment of the Seongju residents.” As soon as he said, “The president can come to Seongju, or if she wants, I can go to the Blue House,” the crowd responded in unison, “Tell her to come here!”
Opposition Parties Flock to Seongju
Amidst growing opposition to THAAD deployment across the country, opposition party leaders have flocked to Seongju to express support.
National assembly members of the main opposition The Minjoo Party visited Seongju on August 5 and faced a barrage of questions critical of their inability to mount an effective opposition to the Park administration’s undemocratic decision. “The THAAD issue will determine the fate of our nation, and it’s outrageous that the president along with a few high-level officials can make a unilateral decision without consulting the people. It’s such a serious matter; why won’t The Minjoo Party adopt opposition to THAAD deployment as its party platform?” chastised a resident.
When the moderator tried to bring the discussion to an end, there was still a long line of people waiting to express their concerns. One resident insisted that he get a chance to pose a question to Representative Park Ju-min before the discussion ends. “Isn’t THAAD deployment ultimately a U.S. decision? The legal bases for this are the uneven Mutual Defense Treaty and the Status of Forces Agreement. THAAD deployment is happening because our country is weak, so shouldn’t the national assembly act to revise the two uneven treaties?” he wanted to know.
Park replied, “As you say, the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Status of Forces Agreement allow the United States to deploy new weapon systems and bring in hazardous materials, such as anthrax, to our country without any notice. And the South Korean government has no power to stop it.” He added, “We take the position that we should amend the uneven relationship between the United States and Korea, but it’s useless as the current administration, which is the main negotiating party for both of the treaties, doesn’t allow it. It’s a frustrating situation.”
Representative Pyo Chang-won gave a self-reflective assessment of his own party as a party of “wimps” and pledged to transform it. “The Minjoo is afraid of being labeled ‘pro-North’ and has become a party of wimps,” he said, “It only cares about getting votes, so it has become wimpy. Many people are working hard to change this, and especially on the issue of THAAD deployment in Seongju, we will make groundbreaking changes.”
On August 1, leaders of the Justice Party and Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party also visited Seongju. One resident talked about the urgency of the campaign to collect 100,000 signatures on a “We the People” online petition to the White House and appealed for support from both parties. People’s Party Representative Park Ji-won pledged to discuss the matter at a general meeting of his party’s assembly members the following day to fulfill the goal of 100,000 signatures and was met with resounding applause and cheers of approval from the residents.
Justice Party Representative Kim Jong-dae said during the candlelight vigil, “THAAD is being pushed through after just one briefing by the United States to our Defense Ministry working group. It’s a monstrosity that no one in the national assembly understands even after repeated explanations, that even the Defense Minister doesn’t understand and no one in South Korea understands.” He added, “Can you forgive a partner who enrolls in a life insurance plan for your family without your knowledge and without fully understanding the terms of the contract? The United States gives no information about the THAAD system. What is THAAD but a faulty insurance product?”
Not all residents were impressed by the opposition parties, however. As the lawmakers boarded the bus to return to Seoul, one resident held up a sign that read, “Opposition majority – No use on THAAD issue,” and others yelled, “Don’t just come here and talk. Go back and do something to stop THAAD deployment!”
Seongju residents are waging an online “We the People” petition campaign to build international opposition to U.S. THAAD deployment in South Korea. At the time of this posting (August 8, 2016), they need 12,000 more signatures to reach their goal of 100,000 by August 14 to receive a response from the White House.
By Hyun Lee
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