In resurrecting Moon-era THAAD controversy, is ruling party attempting to distract from its own turmoil?

Posted on : 2023-06-28 17:17 KST Modified on : 2023-06-28 17:17 KST
Some say the calls for investigations into Moon are meant to draw attention away from the current turmoil over the CSAT and the imminent release of irradiated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean
THAAD anti-missile defense launchers can be seen on a hillside in Seongju, South Gyeongsang Province, on April 27, 2017. (Hankyoreh file photo)
THAAD anti-missile defense launchers can be seen on a hillside in Seongju, South Gyeongsang Province, on April 27, 2017. (Hankyoreh file photo)

South Korea’s administration and ruling party are once again making a political matter of targeting the previous administration with calls for investigations.

Alleging that the Moon Jae-in administration intentionally delayed the environmental impact assessment for the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, the ruling party is calling for an audit by the Board of Audit and Inspection and an investigation by prosecutors.

With the government and ruling party under increasing political pressure due to the turmoil over the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, or “Suneung”) and the impending release of irradiated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant, these claims are being interpreted as strategic moves aimed at strengthening internal cohesion while slamming the previous government.

Following party leader Kim Gi-hyeon, Park Dae-chul, the People Power Party’s chief policymaker, raised suspicions on Tuesday that the Moon administration delayed the environmental impact assessment for the THAAD base.

“It must be made clear whether or not the higher-ups in [Moon’s] diplomatic and security teams, including the [then-serving] defense minister and the director of the Blue House National Security Office, were involved,” Park argued. “The truth should be properly uncovered through audits by the Board of Audit and Inspection and, if necessary, investigations by prosecutors.”

However, there is an argument to be made that a combination of factors contributed to the lack of an environmental impact assessment for the THAAD base during Moon’s tenure.

The THAAD system, which was first deployed in Seongju in April 2017, has been deployed on a temporary basis in Korea for more than six years. Permanent deployment would require the construction of various buildings and infrastructure at the base, which must undergo an environmental impact assessment pursuant to the Environmental Impact Assessment Act.

The first step in this process is the establishment of an environmental impact assessment committee. The Moon administration failed to establish such a council as its attempt to include the residents of Soseong, a rural village in Seongju where the THAAD base is located, fell apart due to local opposition to the “normalization” of the base.

Another reason for the lack of an environmental impact assessment during the Moon administration was that the US did not submit a business plan for the THAAD base, a requirement for such an assessment.

“THAAD deployment has taken place over the course of the Park Geun-hye, Moon Jae-in, and Yoon Suk-yeol administrations,” said Hwang Soo-young, a team leader at the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) Center for Peace and Disarmament. “I’m not sure what we’re supposed to uncover by investigating the delay in the assessment.”

Hwang argued that prosecutors should be investigating the Park administration’s cleaving of the THAAD base. While the total area of the THAAD site that South Korea is providing to the US Forces Korea is 700,000 square meters, during the Park Geun-hye administration the Defense Ministry split the site into about 300,000 square meters as a loophole to avoid carrying out an environmental impact assessment.

Locals protest outside a bus carrying People Power Party leader Kim Gi-hyeon at Seongju County Office on June 26. (Yonhap)
Locals protest outside a bus carrying People Power Party leader Kim Gi-hyeon at Seongju County Office on June 26. (Yonhap)

This is not the first time the government and ruling party have tried to redirect attention away from the turmoil they find themselves in by criticizing the previous government’s foreign and security policies.

In June and July of last year, shortly after the Yoon administration took office, the Board of Audit and Inspection launched an audit into the Moon administration’s handling of two cases related to North Korea: one involving a South Korean civil servant who was shot and killed by North Korea in the West Sea in 2020, and another concerning the repatriation of North Korean fishers in 2019. Prosecutors also launched their own investigations into the cases.

Beyond the areas of foreign and security policy, the board has also been accused of targeted audits against the Moon administration with its audit into allegations of distorted statistics and those into Han Sang-hyuk, chairperson of the Korea Communications Commission, and Jeon Hyun-heui, chairperson of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, who were both appointed during the Moon administration.

Even recently, as President Yoon Suk-yeol’s CSAT remarks continue to baffle educators and test-takers, Minister of Education Lee Ju-ho tried to pass the buck onto the previous administration, saying, “During the five years of the Moon administration, the issue of private education was virtually neglected.”

On the same day, the presidential office highlighted the “cartel of interests” it says runs the private education industry and education authorities, saying that it was aware that the Ministry of Education has received several reports. “If there is a need for judicial action, we can take that into consideration,” the office commented, suggesting that legal actions may be taken.

As the administration and ruling party mobilize auditors and prosecutors to deal with each news of the day, there are concerns even within the ruling party that the short-term benefits of rallying support may be outweighed by bigger fallout in the long term.

“It’s true that there is the need to fix what the Moon administration failed to deliver, but the people didn’t elect the current administration to exact bloodthirsty revenge,” commented one first-term lawmaker.

“The benefit to be gained by pointing out the previous administration’s mistakes is short-lived. In the end, if the administration and ruling party fail to achieve anything of their own, this habit of taking shots at its predecessor will backfire,” they said.

“It’s convenient to use auditors and prosecutors like foot soldiers, but you have to remember that their blade is double-edged and can always come back to you,” said a prominent lawmaker from the country’s southwestern Yeongnam region.

By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter; Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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