It appears THAAD is set to continue to be deployed in South Korea, despite China's vociferous protests, economic retaliation, and state-mobilized "voluntary" boycotts of Korean products. Against the Chinese pressure and overbearing attitude that reminds Koreans of the old Chinese empire that had treated Korea as a vassal state, the anti-China sentiment in South Korea is rising, Seoul and Washington are expediting the THAAD deployment, and the Korea-U.S. alliance is strengthening. This all goes against Chinese strategic calculations. In addition, the likely next South Korean president is likely to disappoint China too.
A defining feature of the Chinese strategy in pressuring South Korea to revoke its decision on THAAD is the use of the state-initiated media warfare to drive a wedge into South Korea's severely fragmented left-and-right political camps. In addition, China has been engaging in a robust psychological tactic to intimidate the Korean business community that depends on the Chinese market, using a multitude of bureaucratic red tape.
The important question is, whether the combined Chinese economic and psychological assault will make South Korea reverse its decision on THAAD? This is an intriguing question to ponder. The result will surely be included among the "prominent case studies" of a future textbook on diplomatic strategy of world powers.
Apparently, the Chinese seem to have a winning chance, particularly, given that the current frontrunner for the next presidential election is Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer and prominent liberal politician from the opposition camp. China is betting on Moon. But, at the end of the day, Moon will likely rise to become a ‘bad moon' for China.
Critically, China is misreading Moon on why he has reservations about THAAD. Moon said the former Park Geun-hye government had mishandled the deployment plan by rushing into it and without public consensus. Moon's wording requires some understanding of South Korea's domestic politics.
One of the things that the South Korean public was most dissatisfied with Park Geun-hye about was her style of making unilateral decisions without allowing proper public consultations. South Koreans abhor this sort of authoritarian leadership. Their trauma of the military dictatorship three decades ago still looms large.
Park's decision on the sex-slavery agreement with Japan in late 2015 was quintessential in this regard. Many South Koreans felt Park hammered out the deal in a great hurry, without even first asking the views of the surviving elderly women, who were victimized by the Japanese military. She made the "landmark" agreement to put the "final and irreversible" lid on this very sensitive and emotional matter, without consulting the victims. In a Confucian society where age and respect go together, Park's handling of the matter enraged the Korean public. According to the latest Gallup poll, in February, 70 percent of Koreans still stand opposed to the deal.
In this context, the broader point Moon has been making is that as a leader he will make the decision-making process more transparent, reflect the public's views, and this includes THAAD. Polls support this interpretation. When asked about the reason for their THAAD disapproval, 53.9 percent of Koreans answered that they did not "trust" the Park government's decision, according to a survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. In other words, Koreans who oppose THAAD do so because Park carried very low credibility with people, not because of THAAD per se. This is the classic case of "It's not ‘what' you did, but ‘how' you did it." Many Chinese analysts failed to grasp this point. They tend to categorize South Korean politicians simply as either "pro-America" or "pro-China," without understanding the complexity embedded in the public sentiment.
In addition, Moon is not necessarily "pro-China" either. For instance, he supports economic engagement with North Korea and the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, partly because he is concerned about North Korea's increasing economic dependence on China.
Now, with the scandal-ridden Park removed through impeachment, there is an early opening for a new presidential election. Moon's strategists will give him various tips on how to appeal to the wider number of voters. Moon may make some adjustments of his views on THAAD because this has become a contested issue. But, again, the broader point about Moon's reservation of THAAD should be about having a leader who will reflect the people's views. What he wants to do is to give the people their voice, make them feel ownership of the nationally important decisions, empower them with democratic processes.
As the likely next president, once sworn in, Moon may bus the THAAD issue to the National Assembly for review. Public opinion will be important.
For the past three months when China has been upping the retaliatory campaign against South Korea over THAAD, the favorable opinion of China among Koreans dropped precipitously to a level even below that of Japan's, according to a survey by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. As of this writing in March, support for THAAD rose to 50.6 percent (37.9 percent disapproved). Even Moon is unhappy with China's interference. Moon called on China to "stop pressuring and threatening our companies and people." This should serve as the writing on the wall.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org