Is the THAAD Missile Crisis in South Korea Escalating?

by KJ Noh, published on Popular Resistance, May 30, 2020

Why are thousands of South Korean Riot Police Bashing Anti-THAAD Protestors?

According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, on May 28th, 2020,

“The Ministry of National Defense and the USFK (United States Forces in Korea) engaged in a transportation operation in the middle of the night to bring equipment to the Seongju THAAD [missile defense] system in Gyeong sang buk do [Province]. The Ministry of National Defense said that it supported the land transportation operation by the USFK from the night of the 28th to the morning of the 29th.  The work was said to have ended at 6 am”

This stealth operation in the middle of the night was nevertheless challenged by the residents of the area. 3700 South Korean riot police had to be deployed as a phalanx to cordon off the roads to enable the operation and to prevent obstruction of the transport.  Several residents were reported to have been injured during the clash between local residents and the police.

Routine Operation?  Not likely.

Although the South Korean government has been taking pains to characterize this as a “routine” maintenance/replacement operation–like an oil change for a WMD-related missile system– what is striking and surprising about this recent action is that it is the first land transport operation for THAAD since September 2017 (when the remaining 4 out of 6 missile batteries were installed, also against mass protest).   Since then, the USFK and Blackwater operators of the THAAD system have been like the French foreign legion at Dien Bien Phu—completely besieged on top of a hill, with all supplies airlifted in, and operating troops leaving or entering only by helicopter.  This is due to the constant protest and surveillance of the base by anti-THAAD protestors encamped all around it.

That this risky, costly, high manpower ground transport operation was undertaken signifies several things:

1) It’s not a routine “replacement”–it’s possibly a significant upgrade in systems, arsenal, or firepower: a one-time operation.

2) The claim by officials is that the operation was to “replace older missiles, a power generator, electronic devices”, and that “the new missiles are of the same type that the U.S. Forces Korea (UFSK) currently operates. As the mission was to replace expired ones, the number of updated ones is exactly the same as those to be taken out of the base,” this claim is hardly credible.  It stretches credibility that the lifespan of a 1.3 billion dollar missile system is only 3 years, or that unused missiles “wear out” like cheap fashion or “expire” like bad yogurt.  Even a well-maintained urn of Kimchi can last longer than that.  (The poster boy for the built-in-obsolescence racket known as Microsoft only forces replacement of its systems every 5-10 years).

3) There has been no clear South Korean Ministry of Defense declaration or accounting to South Korea’s National Assembly on what was transported in or “replaced”–at least 4 trucks were covered up with black shrouds–most likely new missile batteries, launch units, possibly radar modules (see here for component pictures)   Is it a complete soup-to-nuts THAAD system?  This is unclear.  However, it definitely not like the brake pad change or cat-6 cable switch-out to replace “worn out” parts at the “end of their operating cycle” as is claimed by the government.

4) Nothing has been taken out (yet), so whatever this is at this point, it’s unlikely to be a simple “replacement”, but an augmentation or increase in equipment, systems, armaments, firepower.

5). The government also claims it was “to improve living conditions of troops at the base”.  It’s unclear how one would improve living conditions on a site that has access to an elite country club on top of a hill with sweeping views surrounded by lush nature.   Perhaps they need a golf course?  (see below)

6). The official also said, “the operation has nothing to do with the U.S. move to improve its seven THAAD batteries in the region, including the one in Seongju.” Never believe something until it’s been officially denied, especially if the denial seems unnecessary or responds to a concern that has yet to be raised.

The withdrawal of the US from the ABM treaty–which subsequently allowed the development and deployment of THAAD at seven sites around the world, including Korea, and the 2019 disavowal of the INF treaty–permitting the emplacement of nuclear cruise missiles around China’s periphery are all ominous, threatening maneuvers that increase US firepower “overmatch” against China and thus increase the risk of war.

As US-China relations were degrading, and frictions escalating, in mid-February of this year, there was talk of “upgrading” the missile launchers and radar at the Seongju THAAD site–separating out components for more flexible firepower, as well as increasing the number of missiles.  That discussion was tabled, but the stealth–and misconduct–employed in the initial THAAD development and deployment in 2016-17, combined with the odd denial that this is currently happening here, should lead people to suspect that this may actually be happening.

In fact, in light of those plans, this can be read as an ominous maneuver in terms of all the other military buildup and maneuvers going on in the South China Sea, along the Taiwan strait, and elsewhere.

Unsurprisingly, China has officially condemned this maneuver. 

This maneuver by the US also forces Moon into unwanted foreign relations friction with China after his party’s landslide legislative victory, at a time when the Trump administration is escalating on all fronts against China.

Fearful Asymmetry: How THAAD Came to Korea

Although the US has wartime operational control of South Korean forces—nearly 5 million troops, and massive firepower arrayed in Korea, Okinawa, and Japan.  Despite this massive force projection platform, it is effectively in a stalemate with North Korea and China in East Asia and along the peninsula, due to the rough strategic parity of the forces deployed—and it has always sought to find a way to redress this state of affairs.

The THAAD—Terminal (Theater) High Altitude Area Defense system–a high tech anti-ballistic missile defense system built by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon–is an integral component/weapons platform of the Pivot to Asia, the US plan to encircle and contain China.

The US has wanted to place a THAAD system in Korea since at least 2013, and possibly since the declaration of the Pivot in 2011, as part of the military and geostrategic design of its encirclement:  THAAD destabilizes the existing balance of power in the region because it creates the possibility of neutralizing Chinese nuclear deterrence, i.e. China’s nuclear shield, and potentially enables a cost-free nuclear first strike by the US. While it’s sold as an anti-missile system against North Korean missile threats, everyone knows that it’s targeted against China, in particular the AN/TPY X-band radar, which renders China’s inland interior–up to 3000 km inland–transparent to US surveillance and attacks.  It also renders early warning of any Chinese missile launches.  Because of this, the Chinese consider THAAD to be a threat that cannot be tolerated and has to be removed.

The system itself was initially placed in South Korea, under highly secretive and controversial circumstances, during the transitional period during the ouster of Park Geun Hye regime in 2016-2017.  Despite massive opposition of the Korean people-to THAAD system–it was announced, and then forcefully deployed: this was Park’s final ugly insult to the Koreans and her last sycophantic act of fealty to the US, a troubled legacy that Koreans are still struggling with.

Deceitful Deployment: Melons, Missiles, and Country Clubs

Park’s administration played 4 years of footsie under the table with the US: the US and South Korean governments assured both Korea citizens and China that ”no decisions about deployment had been made”,  and only exploratory discussion was happening. This was despite strong signals from the US to South Korea that THAAD deployment was non-negotiable.  This “strategic ambiguity” turned out to be a ploy: a canard to calm down the raging Korean opposition to THAAD, and to avoid alienating Beijing.  During this time, the administration had been secretly scouting out locations for placement and negotiating specifics of emplacement.  Eventually, an artillery site adjacent to a melon farming area in Seong Ju County in the southern part of the country was found, and the deployment was initiated. However, the opposition to the deployment—massive, popular, and religious–was so overwhelming that the government relented, and looked around to find a different—and more defendable– site.  They quickly took over the Lotte Sky Hill Seongju Country Club, an exclusive private golf course belonging to the Lotte Conglomerate not far from the original artillery site.  This site was chosen because of its isolated, elevated terrain, and because the installation could happen immediately without “massive civil engineering work and infrastructure installation”.  This is a typical example of the incestuous nature of SK corporate-government-military nexus, and also speaks to the hurried, urgent, covert nature of the installation.

South Koreans, especially those living in the region had been massively opposed to the THAAD system for several reasons:

  • They understood that this would draw South Korean into a deadly arms race with China and that Seong Ju (its THAAD missile batteries) and environs, as well as other parts of South Korea, would become targets and collateral damage in any shooting war.
  • The lack of consultation and procedural democracy around the deployment rankled even the most solidly conservative of Koreans.
  • The loss of land (in a small, highly populated country with scarce arable land), and the fear of families and crops being irradiated by high-energy X-band radar were serious concerns to farmers and activists.
  • Last but not least, US military bases tend to create massive social problems around them: prostitution, rape, gender-and-race-based violence, the degradation of civic and social life. The down-to-earth farmers of the region were not down for this.

In the period after THAAD deployment was suddenly announced, protests against the US-aligned Park Geun Hye government crested into the millions: over a period of months, throughout the dead of winter, over a quarter of the country’s population came out to protest her corrupt government.  Park’s popularity ratings dropped to 4%–below the confidence interval of the poll—before completely flatlining.  Years of neoliberal violence, labor abuse, colonial sycophancy, capitulation to US and Japan imperial designs, depraved indifference to human life, and unending corruption finally exploded into months of street protest. Park was eventually impeached, arrested, and imprisoned, and a caretaker Prime Minister was put into place. During this transitional period under the caretaker government, when the government was functioning on life support, the US bum-rushed the placement of the missiles—again during the dead of night—onto this golf course/country club in the South.  This action illegally bypassed the South Korean requirement of parliamentary review and approval.  It had been timed to occur before the election of a new South Korea president, to establish facts on the ground that would be hard to reverse with any subsequent administration.

On May of 2017, progressive president Moon Jae In, was elected to the South Korean presidency. President Moon had campaigned, among other things, on the suspension of the THAAD deployment, contingent on further evaluation and environmental review.  However, not long after he took office, even more missiles were installed by the military leadership without notifying him, indicative of whom the South Korean military was really reporting to. This has been a thorn in his side since. President Moon, too, was pressured to increase THAAD deployment, and during the North Korea-US missile standoff in September of 2017, he relented to further temporary deployment.

The system is operated by the Combined Task Force Defender Unit, part of Delta-2, 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment of the US Forces Korea, with an assist from the contractors of the mercenary company Blackwater.  What was originally a temporary, contingent deployment has clearly been converted into a permanent, enduring, and profitable assignment for some.

How to Solve the THAAD issue: A Modest Proposal

There is one long-shot solution to the THAAD debacle that does not involve war, insurrection, or destabilization.

Objectively, golf courses are an abomination–a waste of productive land and water for the exclusive and non-productive use of a minuscule elite.  However, President Trump is very keen on charging the Koreans for the costs and the operation of the THAAD (which the Koreans have so far resisted). This has resulted in considerable antagonism, as has the entire “cost-sharing” agreement: the US wants a 500% increase in the current protection racket payment of $1 Billion/year that South Korea pays for the privilege of having its country occupied with US forces.

The Koreans could offer to pay off the THAAD costs, and then ask for full possession of the THAAD missiles, which are currently under the control of the US.

Once the Korean government takes possession of them, they can disarm them and place them as massive public sculptures in a peace museum or public park as a sculptural example of imperial phallic-narcissistic extremism.

Of course, the US won’t go for this immediately.  The only way to make this happen is if the Koreans could offer the current THAAD site—what used to be the Lotte Skyhill Country Club and Golf Course—previously a magnificent, beautiful, ultra-luxurious 18 hole golf course and country club with exquisite, sweeping views–lofted 2200 ft above the surroundings–as an inducement to President Trump.  It would require some cleanup and renewed landscaping, as military deployments tend to turn even pristine environments into a mélange of bachelor cave and toxic trash dump, but that could be arranged, and should be included in the offer.  After all, the only worse use of land than a golf course is a military base.

After the missiles are removed, the site cleaned up and landscaped, President Trump can then reopen the course for golf, creating a “marvelous, beautiful” private club, and play golf there, which it seems, is the only thing he loves more than firing missiles and tormenting women.

The US Empire gets a check; the Trump Empire gets its 20th golf course–the Trump Skyhill Country Club and Golf Course–to add to the portfolio of “top-notch, magnificent, prestigious” golf courses, and South Korea, North Korea, China, and North-East Asia set the conditions for enduring peace in the region.

There have been worse deals in history.

For more on the deployment of the THAAD missiles within the context of South Korea’s recent history and politics, and the relationship with NK, China, the US, and Japan (KPFA flashpoints).

*Featured Image:  Koreans protest THAAD Missiles May 29, 2020. Screenshot from KBS South Korea News.

K.J. Noh is a peace activist and scholar on the geopolitics of the Asian continent who writes for Counterpunch and Dissident Voice. He is special correspondent for KPFA Flashpoints on the “Pivot to Asia,” the Koreas, and the Pacific.

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