From the U.S.’ potential deployment of an advanced missile defense asset to Korea, to the sharing of military intelligence among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, security issues have been overly politicized here, hindering policymakers’ strategic calculus of national interests.
Although politicization of such issues is inevitable given the nature of a democracy, its intensity appears to be greater than in other countries due to the political and ideological polarization of South Korean society, observers noted.
“The increasing fragmentation of South Korea’s political arena has arguably led to an erosion of strategic consensus, which subsequently resulted in contrasting calibrations in South Korea’s defense planning processes,” said Michael Raska, research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, affiliated with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“The evolving and diverse nature of inter-Korean relations over the past decade has polarized South Korea’s political arena, with persisting debates on the magnitude and character of North Korean threats; terms and conditions of potential Korean unification; changes in U.S. strategy; and levels of American security commitment to South Korea.”
Activists wave national flags of Korea and the U.S. along with pickets condemning pro-North Korean forces on March 10 in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, following a knife attack by a radical activist on U.S. Ambassador to Korea Mark Lippert on March 5. (Yonhap)
With the society divided over issues that require exhaustive consideration of diplomatic, security and technical factors, many of Seoul’s security initiatives have been delayed or scrapped due to negative public opinion that was shaped amid political wrangling. In some cases, delays in security projects resulted in a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Park Won-gon, international politics professor at Handong Global University, said that the government should strive to insulate security issues from political influence, though it might not be an easy task given that the government should reflect public opinion in formulating policies.
“Security issues should not be politicized considering that security is, in some sense, a public good, and is something that involves careful technical, professional considerations. Thus, security policies could, sometimes, run counter to popular opinion,” he said.
“It is often dangerous to leave all complicated issues completely open for debate among the public and politicians, who may lack expertise and knowledge on those issues. It is of course important for the government to persuade the citizens of their policies after careful consideration of interests.”
One hot-button issues is the U.S.’ possible dispatch of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system to the peninsula. It has been stuck in intense political debate, triggering concerns that politicization of the issue would limit policymakers’ strategic options.
The March 5 attack by a radical activist on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert reignited the debate, as throngs of South Koreans took to the streets calling for a stronger Seoul-Washington alliance with conservative groups becoming vocal about the eradication of pro-North forces.
Some lawmakers of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party jumped into the fray, arguing that THAAD batteries would help better cope with North Korean threats. The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, meanwhile, said that THAAD would create a Cold War-like tension and damage economic ties with China. Beijing’s repeated displays of opposition to THAAD, in turn, further escalated the political debate.
“The strong Chinese statements coupled with the importance of China to the ROK (Republic of Korea) economy have politicized this issue and will affect many others in the future if South Korea sets the wrong precedent,” said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the think tank RAND Corp.
The Seoul government is aware of the need for THAAD to better deter North Korea’s escalating missile threats. But it has so far rejected the possibility of purchasing it due to the political overtones amid partisan wrangling.
Instead, Seoul has decided to develop the L-SAM, which is the long-range surface-to-air missile with interception capabilities similar to those of THAAD, as part of efforts to construct an independent missile defense system, called the Korea Air and Missile Defense.
Critics argue that when Seoul recognizes the need for THAAD, developing a new missile defense platform may not be a wise option considering that the development would take much time and money when THAAD has already been developed through trial and error.
In a similar case, the delay in a controversial security project because of political confrontation has resulted in massive financial damages.
The government has been pushing to develop a strategic naval base on Jejudo Island. But the completion of its construction has been delayed for more than a year due to partisan bickering and objections mostly from leftist activists. Damages from the delay are estimated to be nearly 19 billion won ($16.8 million).
Military officials have claimed that the naval base is necessary to properly cope with contingencies in the southern sea area, secure the country’s maritime transportation routes and help boost the regional economy. But critics argued that the naval base can be used by the U.S. military as a strategic outpost to secure its regional maritime hegemony.
Security issues have also been politicized due to historical conflicts. The public has opposed any security collaboration with Japan, South Korea’s onetime colonizer, posing a challenge to Seoul’s efforts to foster practical cooperation with Tokyo to counter North Korean threats.
In 2012, Seoul and Tokyo failed to sign a military intelligence sharing deal amid strong public opposition. Last year, Seoul, Washington and Tokyo managed to sign a trilateral information sharing arrangement despite strong protests from progressive activists.
“Many Americans have difficulty understanding why historical issues appear to take precedence over current security requirements, failing to recognize that security cooperation is fundamentally based on trust, which has been seriously eroded by starkly different views of historical events,” said Bennett.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)