1,000 Gimcheon Residents Head to Seoul to Protest THAAD in front of Defense Ministry
On September 1, residents of Gimcheon and members of the Gimcheon City Council headed to Seoul to hold a rally in protest of the U.S. and South Korean government’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. Originally expected to be 200 people in attendance, close to 1,000 people participated in this protest held near the offices of the South Korean Defense Ministry.
Gimcheon residents have been showing their opposition to the THAAD deployment ever since the Defense Ministry indicated that it would consider an area close to their city as an alternative site for the missile defense system. The original decision by the U.S. and South Korea designated an area in the center of Seongju County of North Gyeongsang Province as the site of the THAAD deployment. Currently, however, the Defense Ministry is considering Lotte Skyhill Golf Course, which sits only seven kilometers from a residential area of Gimcheon City, as the alternative site for the deployment. Concerned about their safety and health, residents of Gimcheon have taken action to show their opposition to the THAAD deployment, holding their own nightly candlelight vigils and organizing protests.
At the September 1 rally in Seoul, residents of Gimcheon voiced all their grievances on the THAAD deployment. Mothers expressed concerns about the health and safety of their children; farmers talked about how the electromagnetic waves from the THAAD could affect the growth of their produce and consequently their livelihood; and others questioned the effectiveness of the missile defense system. One grape farmer referred to the Ministry of Defense as the “Ministry of Disappointment.” He also said, “I am not even a professional protester. I am just a farmer who has been farming for the past 30 years… why would you make an innocent farmer like myself come all the way out here in front of the Defense Ministry to scream [in protest] until I lose my voice?”
As residents of Gimcheon were voicing their concerns and opposition to the THAAD deployment, the mayor of Gimcheon and seven representatives of the Gimcheon Task Force to Oppose THAAD Deployment requested a meeting with the Defense Ministry to express their grievances directly to the Defense Minister. The representatives were told that Gimcheon would be included in the conversation on determining an alternative site for the THAAD deployment. When the Gimcheon Task Force representatives and the mayor returned to join the 1,000 Gimcheon residents at the rally, the only message they could relay was – “The Defense Ministry will try to research how it could lessen the burden of Gimcheon citizens.”
The rally in Seoul concluded with 12 people, including a group of Gimcheon City Council Members, shaving their heads in protest of the THAAD deployment.
Seongju Reaches 50 Days of Candlelight Protest; Gimcheon Seeks to Cut Ties with Ruling Party
August 31 marked the 50th day of candlelight protests by Seongju residents. Ever since the government announced Seongju as the site of the THAAD deployment on July 13, residents have been gathering for candlelight vigils every night for 50 days in protest against the government’s decision. One resident, who has been attending the vigils from the beginning, said, “Although the county residents and the Task Force have endured a lot over time, nothing has changed. We are still against THAAD deployment anywhere.”
Seongju residents opposing the THAAD deployment have faced obstacles and repression from the very beginning. In order to isolate Seongju from national and international solidarity, the South Korean government and conservative media outlets have attempted to mis-represent the anti-THAAD movement as being led by “outside agitators.” A few weeks ago, the government attempted to thwart the Seongju anti-THAAD struggle by turning its own leadership against those fighting to keep the battery out of the Korean Peninsula all together. Despite such adversities forced upon by the government and its tactics of political repression, Seongju residents continue on with their nightly candlelight vigils and protests.
Meanwhile, on August 30, the right-wing Saenuri Party decided to make its pro-THAAD deployment stance the official party platform. So for those who are still fighting in the struggle in Seongju and Gimcheon, questions of political alignment and party affiliation have emerged. Both Seongju and Gimcheon have been known as traditionally conservative with many of their residents having supported the ruling Saenuri Party and the current Park Geun-hye administration. However, the residents who are firmly committed to keeping the THAAD weapons system out of South Korea are calling for local elected officials to cut ties with the Saenuri Party. During a candlelight protest in Gimcheon, a resident talked about the political alignment of local officials – “All people of Seongju and Gimcheon must first renounce their membership with the Saenuri Party. How can you expect to oppose [the THAAD] when you are receiving orders from the central government? You must officially exit the party before standing in front of the people.”
Other residents also called for the mayor of Gimcheon, Park Bo-saem, to give up his affiliation with the Saenuri Party if he plans to continue opposing the THAAD deployment with the people of Gimcheon. Mayor Park, however, did not give a definitive response to this demand and still retains his membership to the Saenuri Party.
Opposition to THAAD Decision Increases among Opposition Parties and in National Assembly
After a period of silence from the Minjoo Party of Korea in the matter of the THAAD deployment, the newly elected party chief, Choo Mi-ae, expressed her intent on leading the party to decide on its official party platform on the issue. “I will make opposition to the THAAD battery the party’s official position,” Choo said as she accepted her new position as the chairwoman of the Minjoo Party. She added, “We cannot let China and the U.S. clash on the Korean Peninsula.” Choo had run for the party chair with the commitment to challenge the U.S. and South Korean government’s decision to deploy the battery in Korea.
Under the interim chief, Kim Jong-in, the Minoo Party did not present an official stance on the issue of the THAAD deployment. The expected decision by the Minjoo Party to take an oppositional stance will present more challenges to the government and ruling party strongly in favor of deploying the THAAD battery. The other major opposition parties, including the Justice Party and the People’s Party, had already announced their opposition to the current administration’s decision to deploy the THAAD system. If the Minjoo party comes out officially opposing the THAAD deployment, the government could be met with strong resistance in the National Assembly.
Some resistance has begun to manifest in the National Assembly, particularly through criticism recently expressed by assembly chairperson, Jeong Se-kyun. At the September 1 session of the 20th National Assembly, Jeong gave an opening address criticizing the government’s decision to deploy the THAAD system. He was specifically critical of the lack of thought and communication that went into making the decision to deploy the U.S. missile defense system. Jeong also criticized the decision as reinforcing the unending “chicken game” or arms race between the North and South, which will only increase tensions in the Northeast Asia region. Saenuri Party representatives accused Jeong of siding with the opposition parties and not maintaining a neutral position. A group of the Saenuri representatives walked out of the assembly during Jeong’s address and vowed to boycott the remainder of the 20th National Assembly program.
Experts Say THAAD Only to Intensify Arms Race in Korea Not Increase Security
Increasingly, weapons experts are suggesting that South Korea’s expansion of military capacity is not helping the country achieve guaranteed security for its citizens. Even experts like Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), who does not strongly oppose the THAAD deployment, provided insight into the effectiveness of the missile defense system proposed to be deployed in South Korea. Lewis suggested that a single THAAD system in South Korea would be ineffective against North Korea’s missile technology, particularly its Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). “THAAD has a forward-looking radar with a 120-degree field of view. In the case of a single THAAD battery, North Korea’s submarines would not have to travel very far out to sea to attack the THAAD system from behind the field of view of its radar,” said Lewis in regards to the THAAD system’s limited capacity to detect North Korea’s submarine missile launchers.
Lewis argued that South Korea would need at least two THAAD systems to better defend against missiles launched from the ocean, like the SLBM. However, the weapons expert also mentioned that deploying more defense weapons systems will only escalate military tensions and the unending arms race on the Korean Peninsula. He suggested, “Our best option… involves finding ways to discourage North Korea from developing new capabilities. Defense is a far less effective strategy.”
Another expert, Theodore Postol, professor of Science, Technology, and International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expects the THAAD deployment to force China to respond with strike plans that would target the battery’s radar, consequently putting Seongju at major risk of destruction. Postol stated, “It’s not an emotional thing. China doesn’t have any choice because it sees the THAAD radar as a major threat to its own nuclear deterrent against the US.”
Postol added that although China would not resort to any sort of preemptive strike, it would target Seongju with a retaliatory strike in the event of preemptive attacks by the U.S. forces in the region. Such an exchange of strikes involving nuclear weapons by the U.S. and China would only lead to devastating consequences for the entire Northeast Asia region.