THAAD’s fate depends on South Korea’s election

By Jaewoo Choo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/13 19:33:40

Wu Dawei, China's Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Affairs, kick started his visit to South Korea on Monday.

His trip has two purposes. The first was to meet with South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se and his Korean counterpart regarding the recent developments on the Korean peninsula. The second was to meet and engage in dialogue with leading presidential candidates.

Following his arrival on Monday, there was a change in the polls of the presidential race. The leading candidate Moon Jae-In was overtaken by the second-place, Ahn Cheol-soo.

Moon has been in the lead long before the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye. As of late last week, his rating was double that of other candidates'. On Monday, however, the lead was given to his competitor, Ahn. Moon's drop in the polls was instigated by a couple of alleged scandals.

One of them involves his son's employment at a state-owned company with a supposedly forged application that was approved in 2006 at the discretion of the company which was at the time headed by Moon's former aide during Roh Moo-hyun's presidency.

Moon was a former senior secretary to the president for civil affairs, and later a secretary to the president. The other is an allegation that he tried to cover up an automobile accident in which Roh's daughter-in-law's father was heavily intoxicated. All these allegations have dealt a detrimental blow to his seemingly comfortable lead heading into the upcoming presidential election.

However, Wu may have been surprised by a sudden change in Ahn's position regarding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Ahn originally opposed the deployment but he changed his mind after overtaking Moon. He said that the new government's responsibility is to inherit all international agreements and treaties from the predecessor, regardless of what they are. It is the norm in the practice of international relations, he claimed.

Ahn may be the leading candidate for now. However, it is too early to predict who will end up in the Blue House. Korea's presidential election is like a Pandora box. We cannot be ascertained of anything yet. There is almost a month left before the election, which is scheduled on May 9. Anything can happen between now and then.

A majority of the voters remains undecided and declines to voice their support for any candidates. Moon's lead is based on the opinion of less than half of Koreans who have already decided on their choice for president. The number of undecided voters is still too overwhelming that the candidates must be humble and modest for now.

If China wants to know the future fate of THAAD deployment, it must wait for the election result. Until then, nothing is certain as presidential candidates will have to cater to the opinions in their constituencies.

Their current position on THAAD will be confirmed following the election. Until then, the candidates' opinions may constantly change. Even Moon might shift his opposition stance on THAAD if North Korea continues to violate UN resolutions.

Thus, China should not put its support behind the leading candidates. A hasty move will reveal China's ignorance of Korean politics and its dynamics. There will be numerous changes in the lead among the candidates, and a significant number of candidates will drop out for financial reasons. Those who fail to garner 15 percent of the general votes, for instance, will only find themselves in humongous financial debt because their election spending will not be reimbursed by the government.

If China really wants South Korea's new government to be supportive of its concerns on THAAD, it should demonstrate its appreciation of the bilateral relationship by curbing its public's voluntary punitive actions against South Korea and its people. It will then contribute to the success of the candidate it seemingly favors.

It is not too late for China to engage in the THAAD discussion with the new president and his government following the election. After all, the leading candidates are from the opposition parties who all have reservation on the military deployment. All of North Korea's provocations and voluntary punitive actions against the South will not help their efforts in seeking alternatives to the deployment. In other words, China will not get what it hopes for, stability and peace on the Korean peninsula.

The author is professor at Kyung Hee University and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.


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