In early July 2016, the United States and South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK) announced their agreement to deploy the advanced U.S. missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), in Korea in response to North Korean nuclear and missile threats. At the time, everyone expected China and Russia to be the loudest opponents. The two countries had attempted to halt this development for many months. But with each passing day, South Korean citizens are turning out to be the more aggressive critics and obstacles to implementation.
The selection of Seongju County, a farming community of 45,000 located 135 miles southeast of Seoul, was made in haste and without consultation with the local government and residents. This is highly problematic in a democratic society, and South Koreans are gearing up for a fight against alliance managers in Seoul and Washington. Negative domestic reaction has the potential to delay and raise the political and financial costs of THAAD deployment. Anti-American sentiments could be reignited in South Korea, and the diplomatic capacity of the U.S. and the ROK to deal with North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK), China, and Russia might weaken.
For many years, we have researched the politics of overseas U.S. bases through in-depth interviews and field research in societies that host U.S. troops. Policymaking takes the global into consideration, but the politics of implementation is local, especially in democracies. Local residents often join forces with national and transnational NGOs to protest incoming military bases or their expansion. They also worry about environmental damage from chemicals and fuel oil on bases, and the loss of land and livelihood. What begins as a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) protest can transform into a larger international movement shaped by broader political agendas. Sometimes the actual local residents get used as pawns by powerful progressive NGOs who have their own ax to grind against their government or the United States, but Seonjgu residents are politically and socially conservative and a traditional seat of the conservative Saenuri Party, to which President Park Geun-hye belongs. As soon as they learned of the government’s decision, they formed the Anti-THADD Struggle Committee to mobilize support and organize activities.
Seongju residents who would be dispossessed of their property to make room for a new THAAD installation feel aggrieved at the material loss but also express fear for their health and crops from repeated exposure to the radiation from the powerful radar technology that is critical to THAAD. Although science assures them that electromagnetic effects will be at safe levels, they are not persuaded. They also fear an influx of raucous bars and drunken soldiers, prostitution, and other illicit activities that have plagued most of the U.S. camp areas in South Korea for over six decades. They also worry that they would be the first targets of DPRK nuclear missiles.
Although grievances about material loss and health effects are often expressed as causes for local protests, the absence of democratic deliberation and consultation in the selection of base sites or changes to their communities involving the U.S. military is what tends to produce deeper, long-lasting resentment toward their own government and the bilateral alliance. Previous episodes of local opposition to unilateral decisions by the central government include protests from 2003-2008 against the expansion of U.S. Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek and demonstrations from 2007 to the present against the construction of a South Korean naval base that would be used by U.S. forces on Jeju Island. In Pyeongtaek, thousands of South Korean police ultimately had to evict by force the 200 farming families who were holding out for years against government pressure to give up their land.
In both cases, local residents claimed they were notified of the decisions after the fact without time or chance for public deliberation and preparation. Seoul and Washington had to contend with domestic opposition boosted by international support, which delayed and raised the costs of construction to accommodate the incoming U.S. troops. The smaller opposition party, the People’s Party, is gearing up to make THAAD an issue in the upcoming presidential election of 2017 and to officially challenge the decision.
Seongju residents also emphasize the anti-democratic process by which their community was designated for THAAD without any consultation or information. Even the county governor was kept in the dark, only learning about the decision from media reports. He was so incensed that he demanded an onsite investigation trip to Guam, where THAAD is in place, with villagers and independent experts, to get information about impacts on people’s health, the well-being of livestock, and the environment. He also shaved his head in protest, in a ritualistic public gesture to express deep grief and commitment to right a wrong.
Protests in Seongju and in front of the ROK National Assembly building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have emerged since media reports first mentioned Seongju as a possible deployment site. Their modes of protest are familiar and taken from previous anti-U.S. demonstrations throughout the 1990s and 2000s: chants and placards, candlelight vigils, the ceremonial shaving of heads, signing petitions and oaths in their own blood, and confronting both U.S. and ROK officials and condemning their own government’s top-down approach that goes against the civil society development and local governance rights that Koreans have been practicing since the 1990s. They regard officials’ post-decision attempts to inform and assuage them as too little, too late. When the prime minister visited Seongju to calm the population, locals threw verbal insults, eggs, and bottles at him.
Washington and Seoul, whose military alliance of six decades binds them to coordinate responses to the North Korean nuclear threat, expected the external criticism regarding THAAD. However, they underestimated the voracity of internal opposition in South Korea. Whether the two governments have learned the lessons from past eruptions of people power regarding U.S. bases is questionable.
The relocation of U.S. Marine Corp Air Station Futenma is a case in point. Since 1996, the U.S.-Japan alliance managers had sought to move the base from the highly populated urban area of Ginowan City in Okinawa to a less populated area in Okinawa. For 20 years, the relocation issue became part of Japanese elections for mayor, governor (in Okinawa), and prime minister, as well as the focus of litigation. Environmental activists around the world and Nobel laureates protested the designation of Henoko and the building of landfill to house the new base. Okinawans and the central government continue to “negotiate” to this day.
In the early 2000s, when a U.S. armored vehicle accidentally ran over and killed two teenage girls in South Korea, there were genuine fears in Seoul and Washington that the alliance might have ruptured beyond repair, and South Korea was flagged in most surveys as an “anti-American” society. Both of us wrote separate books on this phenomenon because it had been unthinkable prior to the democratization of South Korea.
National security decisions require secrecy, but implementation of decisions are local by nature. Engaging in the democratic process and abiding by the genuine concerns of local citizens is an important element in managing and maintaining public support for military alliances between democratic societies.
It is also an essential part of winning the diplomatic and strategic competition with North Korea, China, and Russia. The United States and its allies take issue with these countries partly for their undemocratic political systems and the heavy-handed approach toward dissenters. If South Korean citizens continue their fight against THAAD deployment, North Koreans, Chinese, and Russians can use that opposition to press their own criticism against Washington and Seoul. The last thing Washington needs is for the populist and isolationist pockets in the American public to grow partly in response to protests in South Korea and demand retrenchment in U.S. alliance commitments.
Katharine H.S. Moon is author of Protesting America: Democracy and US-Korea Relations (2013) and Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (1997). She is professor of political science at Wellesley College and nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.