THAAD and the Politicization of Missile Defense in South Korea

By | July 29, 2016 | No Comments

Anti-THAAD protest in Seoul on July 21, 2016. | Image: Xinhua

Anti-THAAD protest in Seoul on July 21, 2016. | Image: Xinhua

Debate over Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment has reached boiling point in South Korea. The decision to site the system in rural Seongju County in the southeastern quadrant of the peninsula has incited protest in both Seongju itself and in Seoul, with some branding President Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party “traitors” to the countryside. The protests focus mostly on concerns over the health effects of THAAD radar emissions and the general safety and security of local residents, who were not given a voice in the selection process.

Across the nation, many South Koreans see the decision as a reflection of larger concerns about the geostrategic corner South Korea may have backed itself into as well as a sense of derision at what citizens see as a unilateral move by the central government under pressure from its security patron, the United States. The US wants to deploy THAAD to South Korea in order to detect North Korean attacks, even offering to fully pay for  and command the radar site. Indeed, following North Korea’s nuclear weapons test in January 2016 and missile testing throughout the spring and summer of 2016, THAAD deployment actually received strong public support from South Koreans across all political affiliations.

However, following threats from North Korea and China and the South Korean government’s apparently rushed decision to deploy, many in South Korea have begun to wonder whether the missile defense system would do more harm (to relations with neighbors) than good (by enhancing deterrence). The result is a heated debate in South Korea, with increasing polarization on the issue along political party lines and a widespread feeling that the national government has ignored the general public and succumbed to pressure from the United States.

US-ROK military issues can act as flash points for domestic politicization — basing, military personnel, and the Status of Forces Agreement are just a few of the more visible issues — and may have severe repercussions for South Korea’s relationships with the United States and also North Korea. The rapid turn in public opinion on the THAAD debate could signal a rocky path over the next year not only for the Saenuri Party in the 2017 presidential election, but also South Korean support for the US alliance or the likelihood of progress with North Korea.

Lee Jae-jin, “Opposition Overtakes Support to the Question, ‘Will THAAD Deployment Be in the National Interest’” [‘사드 배치 국익 되느냐’ 질문에 반대가 찬성 앞질러’], Media Today, July 25, 2016.

Six out of ten South Koreans sympathize with the claim that the hurried decision to deploy THAAD came about because of American pressure, a public opinion survey shows.

“Media Today” commissioned STA to ask 1,000 men and women nationwide aged 19 and above on July 21 and 22, “When asked about the THAAD arrangements at a hearing at the National Assembly on July 5, Defense Minister Han Min-goo said that no decisions had been made. However, three days later an announcement was made. How much do you sympathize with the claim that the rushed announcement of THAAD deployment was due to U.S. pressure?” 33 percent of respondents answered “strongly agree” and 27.2 percent answered “somewhat agree,” meaning that a combined 60.2 percent of respondents sympathize with the statement. 21.4 percent answered “somewhat disagree” and 12.4 percent answered “strongly disagree,” meaning that 33.7 percent of respondents do not agree.

Across all regional groups, agreement with the statement was higher than disagreement. Among respondents who self-identified as very conservative (70 people), 51.8 percent said they agreed that the rapid announcement of THAAD deployment was due to U.S. pressure. This shows a lack of public consensus on the THAAD decision.

Amidst divergent opinion regarding THAAD deployment, opposition is now ahead of support for the first time since the deployment decision was made.

41.9 percent believe that deployment will “aid the national interest by raising military deterrence against North Korea and strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance,” while 45.8 percent believe that it will “hinder the national interest by reducing military effectiveness and aggravating conflict with China and Russia.” That is just a slim margin, but one that shows that negative opinion about THAAD is in front by about 4 percent.

In particular, it can be seen that negative public opinion has risen fast in the period since previous polls were conducted, indicating that controversy over the decision to deploy THAAD is likely to continue for a prolonged period.

On February 11-12 this year, a Korea Research (코리아리서치) public opinion survey commissioned by KBS and Yonhap News showed that 67.1 percent supported THAAD and 26.2 percent opposed it, putting support at twice the level of opposition. According to the results of a July 13 Real Meter (리얼미터) survey, 44.2 percent answered, “I support it in order to improve deterrence against North Korea and strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance,” whilst just 38 percent answered, “I oppose it because it will weaken military effectiveness and raise tensions in Northeast Asia.”

“In a new year public opinion survey reported by KBS, JoongAng Ilbo and others, a simple yes-no questions on THAAD deployment showed supportive public opinion twice that of opposition, but as we reached a consensus as to what THAAD really is, opposition constantly rose,” Park Jae-ik of STI Research Institute explained, going on to say, “The July 13 Real Meter survey confirmed that positive and negative opinion had narrowed to within the margin of error, but this survey is the first to find that negative opinion is now ahead.”

The survey shows many respondents believe that we must halt the government’s unilateral THAAD deployment decision.

Answers to the question were split along lines of age, region, and political affiliation. A majority of respondents aged 19 through 40 believed the government needs to reexamine the THAAD deployment plan, while a majority of those aged 50 to 60 and over believe the government should go ahead as planned.To the question, “Should the government push ahead with the THAAD deployment as planned, or should they gather public opinion of the citizens and reexamine the plan?” 53.1 percent of respondents answered that the government should reexamine the plan. 42.6 percent answered that the deployment should go ahead as planned and 4.3 percent said that they did not know.

Taking results by region, support for reexamination was highest in Seoul and Gyeonggi, Daejeon and North and South Chungcheong, Gwangju and North and South Jeolla, Gangwon, and Jeju, while support for going ahead as planned was higher in Daegu, North Gyeongsang and Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang.

Among self-identifying supporters of the Saenuri Party (316 people), 81.7 percent said THAAD must be deployed according to plan, and on the other side, 80.7 percent of supporters of the Minjoo Party (284 people) answered that the government must reevaluate the plan.

Along generation, region, and party affiliation lines, opinion is as divided as ever about the THAAD deployment, and going forward it seems likely that conflict will grow.

Among those who said their views had changed since the government’s THAAD deployment decision, more had shifted to negative than positive points of view. To the question, “After the government’s decision, how did your thoughts about THAAD deployment change?” 26.3 percent responded, “It became more positive than before,” while 33 percent responded, “It became more negative than before.” By age group, a full 58.8 percent of those in their 30s answered that their view had become more negative than before.

This change from past opinion can be seen as the result of criticism over insufficient attention being paid to public sentiment and the need for a full-scale investigation into safety issues and other concerns.

Only three people out of ten (30.1 percent) answered that there had been “no particular change” in their position on THAAD following the government’s decision on deployment, and that they expect that even when the controversy following the decision is taken into account, their own opinion will not easily change.

This public opinion survey has a confidence level of 95 percent, a maximum sampling error of ± 3.1 percent, and a response rate of 4.1 percent. Further details can be found at the National Fair Election Survey Deliberation Commission website (

Source: Lee Jae-jin, “Opposition Overtakes Support to the Question, ‘THAAD Deployment Will Be in the National Interest’” [‘사드 배치 국익 되느냐’ 질문에 반대가 찬성 앞질러’], Media Today, July 25, 2016. Translation by Darcie Draudt.

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