The South Korean presidential election campaign earlier this year was all about the issue of THAAD and the question of how to deal with the North. Throughout the campaign, the leading presidential hopeful, Moon Jae-in, now the 19th president of South Korea, had an ambiguous stance on the missile defense system–somewhere between “oppose” it and “reprieve” it—and his indecision led to widespread doubt about his security policies.
But what really brought the THAAD controversy to life was US President Donald Trump’s sudden demand that South Korea pay one billion USD for the deployment of the American system, a stance that conflicted with the existing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries.
Kim Kwan-jin, the national security chief at the time, tried to put out the fire, stating on April 30 that his counterpart, US National Security Adviser HR McMaster, had clarified over the phone that Washington would bear the cost. Thirteen hours later, however, during an interview with Fox News, McMaster struck a different tone, saying, “The last thing I would ever do is contradict the president of the United States.” McMaster later reaffirmed that the US would cover the cost, but the episode drove the domestic media crazy, with outlets releasing editorials under titles like “Concerns over the current situation Korea faces”, “Immediate U.S.-Korea summit necessary”, “Relevant government officials must be held accountable for the diplomatic failure” and, of course, “Trump yelled at McMaster over THAAD in Korea.”
Timeline-wise, the controversy started right after US Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea on April 16, in the midst of a series of heated presidential debates and while THAAD deployment was actually ongoing. During Pence’s visit, a member of the White House staff told reporters that the THAAD deployment should take place after the election. The following day, the defense ministry announced: “No changes in our plans to be ready for the operational deployment of the US missile defense system as soon as possible.”
The April 28 debate was all about THAAD (see our coverage here). Moon used the occasion to grill Ahn Cheol-soo from the People’s Party, who used to be his biggest competitor, and to make the following point: “Begging for THAAD has brought about such failure in not just the THAAD deployment cost but also Free Trade Agreement (FTA) renegotiations… wasting our diplomatic card, the only one which we could have wielded, and hurting our bargaining power with the US.”
After his sweeping victory, Moon had to quickly overcome twists and turns caused by his defense ministry. In their initial reports to Moon regarding the deployment status of THAAD, officials at the ministry intentionally omitted information about four additional launchers that had already been delivered. Furthermore, US citizen Otto Warmbier, who had been detained in North Korea for 17 months, died shortly after being released, inflaming anti-North Korean sentiment across America.
Off to Washington
Against this backdrop, Moon finally flew to Washington, DC, and met with Trump in late June, accompanied by, among others, Kang Kyung-wha, the country’s first female foreign affairs minister, who served for years at the United Nations.
Moon, whose parents fled from the North during the Korean War, worked as a human rights lawyer and served as a top aide to the late, liberal President Roh Moo-hyun–who had the largest number of talks with the communist regime of any South Korean president. Moon also led the preparations of the second inter-Korean summit in 2007 and has said openly that he wishes to talk with the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un. Before his electoral victory, his “If I become the president, I will visit North Korea first” comment was heavily covered by the media, and upset many conservatives in the country, costing him their votes. When declaring his victory and taking the oath of office, he reiterated that he is willing to visit North Korea under the right conditions.
At the summit with the US, Moon made a strong showing in terms of handling the North. According to the US-Korea Joint Summit Statement, the two leaders agreed on the following key points:
- Trump supports Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue in issues including humanitarian affairs.
- Trump supports South Korea’s leading role in fostering an environment for peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula.
- The leaders will continue the alliance’s work to expeditiously enable the conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces.
Back in Seoul
On returning to Seoul, Moon gave a speech focusing on his achievement of an agreement between the US and South Korea on “fulfilling the mutual goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula in a peaceful way”. He spoke of US support for South Korea taking leadership of Korean peninsula issues and added, “Our role has become more significant in the current dynamics surrounding the peninsula.”
Of course, snide editorials were published by the three major domestic papers– Chosun, Joongang and DongA–on the very first Monday after Moon came back. The overall tone was ‘Score one for security but how about the economy?’ and the papers cast worries about the FTA renegotiations and the potential increase in defense cost sharing. At least Moon, on his first visit to the US as the president of South Korea, had the ‘score one for security’ part to enjoy.
On a similar note, Moon met with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach at the Blue House on July 3. The two agreed that the North’s participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games would comply with the spirit of Olympism and, eventually, promote international peace. Such an effort had been displayed earlier at the World Taekwondo Championships in Muju city, when Moon met with the North Korean delegation before departing for Washington.
The North’s first ICBM
But then, on July 4, North Korea overturned the entire setup and announced that it had successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-14. The next day brought detailed footage which proudly demonstrated that the North is now capable of firing an ICBM that can reach all the way to the American mainland. The North’s announcement, delivered by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), provocatively taunted the States with “the US may not be too happy with our gift packages for them on its independence day”. And the vow to conduct more missile tests sent a clear message of ‘We want to deal with the U.S. directly’ which diminishes South Korea’s influence in the dynamics and is at odds with Moon’s “South Korea to lead”.
As a response to the threat, the US and South Korea conducted a joint military exercise the next day, firing ballistic missiles, including the South’s 300 kilometer-range Hyunmoo-2A and the US Eighth Army’s surface-to-surface missile, ATACMS. The UN Security Council condemned the North while promising tougher sanctions against the regime. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, asked for an emergency session on North Korea with her Chinese counterpart and the current president of the council, Liu Jieyi.
Despite comments from Defense Minister Han Min-koo and Moon’s national security adviser, Moon Jung-in, that it was still too early to tell, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed that the missile launched by the North really was an ICBM.
American media outlets, which had been rather distracted from Moon’s visit by Trump’s tweets attacking the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and body slamming CNN, immediately turned their attention to the seriousness of the provocation. Trump, of course, chimed in with another tweet: “Does this guy (Kim Jong-un) have anything better to do with his life?”
On to G20
Moon Jae-in and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
All of this chaos broke out just one day before Moon’s departure for Germany to attend the G20 summit, adding to the challenge of an already tough debut for Moon on the international stage. His schedule in Hamburg included meetings with the leaders of—among others—Japan, China, and Russia. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin were adamantly opposed to THAAD deployment on Korean soil but the South Korean president had all out committed to THAAD during his meetings with US congressional leaders the week before, putting to one side concerns about the legitimacy of the deployment and the details of when and how it would take place.
As a matter of course, Moon’s decision needs to be understood by neighboring nations, most importantly, China, in order to avoid retaliation of any kind–particularly in light of a report released in May by the Hyundai Research Institute (HRI) that projected South Korea’s economic loss due to the THAAD dispute to hit up to 8.5 trillion KRW this year, eight times greater than that of China.
Hard-liners on North Korea have been upset by Moon’s unwavering emphasis on peace and talks, even after Pyongyang’s recent ICMB provocation. Moon’s speech delivered on July 6 at the Körber Stiftung was in line with his original policy direction. In it, he stated: “… We have reached the tipping point of the vicious circle of military escalation, and thus, the need for dialogue is more pressing than ever before”. Also: “My government will pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that guarantees the security of the North Korean regime.” Opponents, of course, criticized Moon’s statement and claimed that further dialogue with the North is no longer even worth discussing. And if that wasn’t enough, the South Korean public is now questioning the feasibility of some of Moon’s proposed “easy” breakthroughs, like reunions between separated families, the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games and inter-Korean dialogue.
The North’s ICBM provocation made Moon one of the most sought-after leaders in Hamburg. Yet, this was possible because four of the G7 leaders at this year’s G20 summit were newbies: Donald Trump representing the US, Emmanuel Macron from France, Theresa May from the UK, and Paolo Gentiloni from Italy. The most anticipated meeting with Xi took place on July 6. The Chinese president didn’t mention the word “THAAD” during that meeting but he did strongly oppose the deployment of the US missile-defense system in Korea when he met with Trump. As a response to Moon’s request during the meeting for corrective measures to ease retaliatory regulations against South Korean businesses, Xi remained unconvinced, saying, “In order to eliminate obstacles and better our relations, I hope South Korea sets importance on China’s proper interest and takes valid action concerning the issue.”
Yes, Moon successfully filled the diplomatic vacuum left by Park’s impeachment and, generally speaking, left a good first impression with the world’s most influential leaders. He also participated in drafting the first joint statement with Trump and Abe on July 7, condemning North Korea. But as for coaxing China and Russia, it seems like he hasn’t been as successful thus far; although the G20 is mainly about the economy and not security, Moon’s plan to leverage the North’s ICBM launch by putting the matter on the negotiation table and adding it to the G20 closing statement reportedly fell to pieces due to opposition from China and Russia. Leaders from the two countries had already met in Moscow before attending the G20 on July 4 and jointly recommended a moratorium on North Korean testing of nuclear devices and ballistic missiles and called for the US and South Korea to refrain from “large-scale joint maneuvers”.
Pyongyang hasn’t yet officially responded to Moon’s Berlin offer while the Trump administration plans to act alone against Kim’s regime, targeting Chinese companies and banks, in direct contradiction to Moon’s “We lead”. Furthermore, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, aims to put “stronger sanctions against North Korea” to a vote within weeks. These measures reportedly include reducing oil shipments to Pyongyang, but that seems unlikely since both China and Russia are permanent members of the Security Council with veto power. The US and South Korea are also discussing a secondary boycott on third-party companies that do business with Pyongyang, most of which would obviously be Chinese. But such an approach would both conflict with the vision that Moon introduced in Germany and aggravate an already annoyed China.
Moon himself has admitted, while presiding over a cabinet meeting on July 11, that South Korea has “to be painfully aware that although the issue concerning the Korean peninsula is the most desperate one for us to resolve, we don’t practically have the power to lead nor draw an agreement.” Some might say that choosing a side would be foolish, but in facing the biggest diplomatic challenge of his nascent presidency, Moon might have to admit at some point that it is impossible to please everyone in the game.
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