Donald Trump, on his first day in office, is facing an impeachment crisis. It’s not targeting him, but it affects his presidency deeply by further straining testy relations with Beijing.
On Monday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry announced a delay in the acquisition of land for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, designed to shoot down incoming missiles. The timetable for this preliminary step “may be pushed back a bit,” said ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun.
Last July, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, after months of deliberation and over the strenuous objections of China, agreed to deploy THAAD, as the Lockheed Martin system is known, to defend against the threat of North Korean missiles that could carry nuclear warheads.
In November, the South Korean military and Lotte Group tentatively agreed to swap land, allowing the first THAAD battery to be located on the site of its Jack-Nicklaus-designed golf course, Skyhill Country Club, almost 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
This week, the Defense Ministry reported that Lotte was not ready to give the final go-ahead for the trade. “There is a procedure, that the board of directors of Lotte holds a meeting to approve the final cost estimation, but that meeting has not yet been held, and we expect the meeting to be arranged soon,” the ministry announced.
One might wonder whether Trump will side with golf course developers, but that would be to trivialize a truly momentous decision.
Beijing is vehemently opposed to THAAD. It has been pressuring South Korea not to go through with the deployment, and it has just found a weak link.
“A person familiar with the matter told Xinhua that Lotte may refrain from signing the deal as the retail giant relies heavily on Chinese tourists for much of its revenue,” the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by People’s Daily, wrote on Monday.
Lotte, which runs duty-free stores, is highly dependent on sales to Chinese tourists. The paper’s source said the board meeting was in fact postponed because of concerns about its businesses in China.
China, as the Lotte matter shows, has already been intimidating South Korea. In addition to a constant barrage of threats in the form of Foreign Ministry statements and state media articles, Beijing has implemented targeted retaliatory measures, including barring South Korea’s K-pop groups from performing in China, stopping charter flights, limiting Chinese tourists to South Korea, and prohibiting the import of its cosmetics.
The Chinese tactics look like they’re working. A survey by research firm Realmeter in December showed 51 percent of South Koreans opposed THAAD, up from 38 percent the previous July. Support for THAAD at the end of last year fell to 34 percent, from 44 percent in July.
And a political crisis in South Korea is taking its toll. Park was impeached by a 234-56 vote in the National Assembly on Dec. 9 for conspiring with Choi Soon-sil, her shadowy spiritual advisor, to extort tens of millions of dollars. Park and Choi have issued denials and assert their innocence.
The Constitutional Court is now determining Park’s fate, and should it decide to remove her, there will be in 60 days of its decision an election to fill the vacancy. In any event, the South’s next presidential election is scheduled for December.
In this highly charged year, THAAD has become one of the main campaign issues because Park was the missile-defense system’s “strongest supporter,” as Voice of America termed her.
Conservative figures in the running to replace Park, like former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are generally in favor of THAAD, but the opposition progressives are not. For instance, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, currently the leader in the polls, wants to delay the defensive system and send the decision to deploy to the National Assembly. The opposition-dominated legislature would probably kill it through interminable delays.
THAAD supporters are pushing to accelerate the defense system. “The acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, has asked the U.S. to hurry up and deploy THAAD soonest, likely because he has no confidence in the political future of conservatives come presidential election time,” Robert Collins, a South Korea-based analyst with long-standing ties to U.S. Forces Korea, told The Daily Beast.
And Hwang’s approach is sound, given South Korea’s highly volatile politics. As Collins notes, “At this point, South Koreans have no idea who their leadership will be over the next year.”
South Korea—and the region—have much at stake. And so does the U.S. The THAAD controversy has the same feel to it as Ronald Reagan’s effort, in the early 1980s, to get NATO to upgrade its nuclear arsenal with the deployment of America’s Pershing II missiles on European soil. Moscow worked especially hard to prevent the North Atlantic Alliance from doing so, but ultimately failed. With his success, Reagan set the tone for future dealings with the Soviets.
Now, China is threatening South Korea over THAAD. And Beijing’s move is especially outrageous. It has been helping the North Koreans develop nuclear weapons and missiles by, among other things, supplying uranium, components for nukes, mobile launchers for long-range ballistic missiles, and maybe even plans for submarine-launched missiles. At the same time, China is demanding the South not defend itself from the threat it has been creating.
If Beijing succeeds, it will be even more emboldened to take on the United States, and the heightened Chinese belligerence could fast become the 45th president’s biggest problem.
As The Wall Street Journal reported in late November, the Obama White House has identified North Korea as Trump’s “top national security priority.”
China, if it gets its way on THAAD, is about to make that challenge—and undoubtedly others—even greater.