THAAD in Korean Peninsula: Crumbled Democracy and Constitutionalism


On July 8, Korea and the United States announced that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system would be deployed by the U.S. Forces in Korea in response to the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. On July 13, Seongju County in North Gyeongsang was selected for deployment.

Lee Jaedong, president of the Seongju peasants’ organization, said that residents’ lives are threatened by having a weapon so close to homes without a safety verification. The Struggle Committee Against THAAD Deployment in Seongju was formed, and the group set up a sit-in site in front of the Seongju County Office demanding withdrawal of the decision. The committee is holding a session explaining THAAD to residents, collecting signatures, and promoting their blue ribbon, a symbol of peace. The elders in Seongju went to the Blue House in Seoul to protest, and residents voluntarily held a candlelight vigil every night.

On July 21, over 2,000 residents went to Seoul to participate in a rally and read a plea to the people. Some conducted a silent protest against the media’s distorted coverage and shaved their heads. Detractors denounced the rally as a “not in my backyard” complaint and called the Seongju residents reds. As the struggle continues, Seongju’s protesters are witnessing the kind of negative backlash that the Sewol victims families suffered and are realizing that this is not just about THAAD but also about the media’s distorted coverage and anti-North Korean ideology.

In terms of deploying THAAD, there has not been enough examination on its effectiveness, military and diplomatic cost, impact and safety, let alone the process for gaining approval of the National Assembly and citizens. I met with lawyer Song Kiho to discuss the problems with the process and what will happen here on.

1. It seems the Korean government pushed for the deployment of THAAD. Why do you think the government did that? The THAAD issue shows that democracy and rule of law in Korea are not solid. In theory, we have a constitution, an evaluation process on environmental effects and a public information act, but it’s been shown that they do not work properly in reality. It also reveals that the United States is the decision maker, and South Korea implements the decision due to unbalanced international relations.

The United States primarily uses Korean territory to its benefit, but the anti-North Korean ideology of the Korean ruling elite is also involved. For them, anti-North Korean ideology precedes the constitution. It is more beneficial for them and the United States to have THAAD deployed on the Korean Peninsula as soon as possible. In other words, it is for their vested interests. But on the other hand, it is not a simple matter because there are many people who consider the threat of North Korea as a real and dangerous one, which means it is directly related to the social and political situation in Korea.

2. The Ministry of Defense argues that National Assembly approval is not necessary for deploying THAAD. Where was the problem in the process? First of all, basic information on the agreement was not open to the public. To discuss and determine the merits of deployment through internal discussion, people should have objective information such as the exact deployment and restricted area, the operation cost, deployment duration, and its effectiveness. But currently, the government only reveals information that is favorable to them. For instance, the government announced the area was not subject to the environmental effects evaluation, since the area won’t exceed 220,000 square meters. If so, the government should reveal the exact area and what the agreement says.

Furthermore, it is not for the minister of national defense to determine whether approval of the National Assembly is needed. The Korean government bears about 94 million won of the military cost for U.S. Forces in Korea. THAAD will cost 1.5 trillion won to introduce and more to operate. This will burden the Korean government. According to the Korean constitution, when a agreement “brings significant financial burden to the country and people,” it should be approved through the National Assembly. While we don’t know the exact amount, it’s obvious that it constitutes a significant burden. Thus, it should be approved by the National Assembly.

3. Given THAAD, some argue that the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the Republic of Korea and the United States should be amended or abolished since it is unfair. If it was amended or abolished, in which direction should we go? The Mutual Defense Treaty that gave the United States the right to deploy armed forces after the Korean War is unfair. We should demand amending it since there is no time limit and the Korean government does not have wartime control. We should not limit this issue only to THAAD, but also to the United States’ right to deploy weapons in Korea and how to regulate it through the constitution in a democratic way. It is directly connected to the U.S. Forces in Korea. We should decide ourselves the timeline for how long a foreign force is stationed, but we are not preparing to decide. For example, there should be a law to evaluate the U.S. Forces Korea and discuss its role and long-term plan in the National Assembly.

4. Xi Jinping, the president of China, and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, declared in a joint statement that “the deployment of THAAD harms the strategic interests of China and Russia” and they would therefore cooperate on the issue. And right after the announcement of Thaad deployment, North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile into the East Sea. What is the impact of THAAD deployment on peace and diplomatic relations in East Asia? Can THAAD eventually bring denuclearization and peace? I think it would make the situation worse. North Korea will develop more weapons and try to find a way to bypass THAAD. According to the logic of deploying THAAD, peace is achieved by neutralizing attacks. History shows that this logic fails. There has been no case in which peace was kept when one force perfectly neutralized the other. Rather, that kind of state causes more tension and even war.

5. On July 14, 44 civic organizations and religious groups gathered and declared that “the deployment of THAAD should be repealed because it threatens peace in East Asia and infringes on people’s right to a peaceful life.” Will it be possible to repeal the decision? If the Korean government has the will, it is possible. But it is not likely to happen because there is not even a basic discussion on the long-term role of the U.S. Forces in Korea. The other option is to oppose the agreement passively through domestic policies that obstruct its implementation. For example, we can say we cannot deploy it after conducting an evaluation on its environmental effects and effectiveness.

In the Status of Forces Agreement, the United States agreed to pay all operation fees for the army, but as the U.S. trade and financial deficits grew, the Korean government began sharing the fees after making a separate agreement. And after Korea and the United States made an agreement on beef imports, it was changed because of fierce opposition of Korean citizens. These examples show it is a matter of will. That is why it seems harder to change, because there are active players in the Korean government who have a clear ideology.

6. What do you think will happen regarding THAAD issue? What should we do? I think it will be a starting point to discuss the U.S. military presence in Korea. In history, an imperial order cannot continue due to its own contradictions and greed. The United States could preserve its interests while being in harmony with a growing China but chooses not to. That is why I think it can serve as momentum to shake U.S. imperialism. Deploying THAAD may have immediate desired effects, but the contradiction will exacerbate. It also accumulates elements that make an unstable situation for Korean capitalists. The ruling elite in Korea will surely react to that. Then there will be some fundamental changes. I think we should keep discussing this issue patiently and closely without losing direction so that we can make fundamental changes in Korea’s democracy and rule of law.