Peace Science Digest

How (Invisible) Racism Shapes U.S.-South Korea Military Relations

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Moon, S. (2021). Race, transnational militarism, and neocoloniality: The politics of the THAAD deployment in South Korea. Security Dialogue, 52(6), 512-528.

Talking Points

  • Through its particular form of indirect “racial rule,” the U.S. ascribes immaturity to South Korea because of its supposed delayed cultural development, and South Korea seeks to overcome its perceived lack of development by assimilating U.S. values and practices.
  • South Korea has internalized its own presumed inability to self-rule, demonstrated by U.S. wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military and the legal immunity granted to U.S. military personnel on U.S. bases in South Korea.
  • As a project of transnational militarism, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea demonstrates the invisible working of race and class hierarchies through othering North Korea as the “red enemy” and imposing the unequal burden of hosting the missile defense system on lower-class marginalized rural communities.
  • Transnational militarism capitalizes on existing social hierarchies to accomplish its militaristic security objectives at relatively lower political and economic costs.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • Rather than leading with the military first to maintain its position in the global hierarchy, the U.S. should embrace a feminist foreign policy, as articulated in the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century Resolution, to deconstruct its system of racial rule and work towards demilitarization.


Author Seungsook Moon seeks to explore why subsequent South Korean administrations, operating in a democracy, advanced the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) over domestic opposition and despite its dubious benefits for South Koreans. Moon draws upon historicist racial rule in his explanation of why THAAD’s installation came to pass. Additionally, examining THAAD as a project of transnational militarism, Moon identifies the invisible working of race and class hierarchies in South Korea.

Before her 2017 impeachment, the ultraconservative South Korean President Park Geun Hye unilaterally approved, without public discussion or approval by the parliament, the deployment of THAAD in conjunction with the U.S. Surprisingly, the liberal President Moon Jae allowed the deployment to carry on as planned despite his earlier objections on the campaign trail. THAAD was forcefully deployed in late 2017 in a remote village of Sosŏngni after violent confrontations between police and villagers opposing its deployment.

Historicist racial rule: A system of rule derived in the U.S. that de-emphasizes “explicit references to naturalized racial categories and white superiority” and relies upon “indirect references to racial minorities’ immaturity and inability for self-rule attributed to their delayed historical and cultural development. This historicist racial rule also promises inclusion and equality for racial minorities through their assimilation into the values and practices of the developed; this promise generates motivation on the part of racial minorities to overcome their ‘lack of development’ and, in the process, they internalize it.”

Transnational militarism: “[A] set of ideas and practices which normalize war preparation and war waging by relying on the transnational flows of the crucial resources.”

Kim, N., & Moon, S. (2021). Transnational militarism and ethnic nationalism: South Korean involvements in the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Critical Military Studies, 1-19.

THAAD’s installation is not in the best interest of South Korea because it does not protect South Korea from the most probable attacks from North Korea. It is designed to destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), yet it is unlikely that North Korea would use a weapon meant to travel intercontinental distances against its neighbor on the Korean peninsula. Moreover, THAAD’s interception range for an ICBM does not include Seoul, the most densely populated South Korean city and political and cultural capital. From a human security perspective, the radiation emitted by THAAD has extreme and devastating health impacts on nearby South Korean civilians. THAAD only increases South Korea’s military dependency on the U.S. and heightens insecurity by provoking China and North Korea.

Historicist racial rule explains South Korea’s advancement of a missile defense system that lacks broad public support and provides few security benefits. South Korea has internalized its presumed immaturity and thus participates in the denial of its self-rule. The impact of historicist racial rule in U.S.- South Korea military relations is evident in two fundamental practices: U.S. wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean military and the presence of U.S. bases in South Korea.

South Korea internalized its presumed immaturity and actively participates in denying its self-rule by enduring U.S. wartime OPCON of the South Korean military. During the Korean War the U.S. possessed wartime OPCON of the South Korean military and, since 2012, the U.S. government has tried to return wartime OPCON to South Korea, but successive South Korean administrations have delayed accepting it. While there are many in South Korea advocating for national wartime OPCON, “lingering doubt about self-defense [by conservative and liberal South Korean administrations]” maintains the status quo. This pervasive view among political leadership reflects the internalization of racialized inferiority that historicist racial rule encourages.

Plans to develop THAAD’s installment site into a U.S. military base further illustrate South Korea’s denial of self-rule. The 15 U.S. military bases in South Korea are extraterritorial, meaning they fall outside the jurisdiction of the South Korean judicial system. The “‘favorable consideration’ clause” of the 1966 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) established this extraterritoriality. Criminal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers on South Korean military bases is automatically transferred to the U.S. military, even when they commit heinous crimes such as rape or murder against South Korean civilians. Frequently, the U.S. military falls short in its criminal enforcement of its service members in South Korea. According to available records, 750 crimes against South Koreans allegedly committed by U.S. soldiers were transferred to the U.S. military between 1997 and 1999. However, of those hundreds of crimes, only three prison sentences were issued. Because of the mutually agreed upon extraterritorial nature of U.S. bases, South Korea’s ability to rule its own territory is constrained.

The politics of THAAD deployment reveal the otherwise invisible working of race and social hierarchies in South Korean society in the service of transnational militarism. The South Korean government otherized North Koreans by labeling them as “the red,” reinforcing homogeneity among its civilians—South Koreans—and constructing difference among the people(s) of the Korean peninsula who, in reality, share the same ancestry. Class divisions among South Koreans are salient and appear in decisions about where military deployments—much like THAAD—are located. Further, “the red” label denotes a threatening presence and justifies militarism in the form of missile defense systems. Capitalizing on existing social hierarchies—such as race and class—THAAD’s installation illustrates how transnational militarism “actively makes use of such hierarchies to achieve its objectives at relatively lower economic and political costs.”

Informing Practice

A key takeaway of this research is the practice and impact of historicist racial rule in global power dynamics. In addition to South Korea, the U.S. military has coordinated with several other countries in installing THAAD, such as Romania, Poland, Israel, and the UAE. Operationalized through historicist racial rule, the U.S.-led global hierarchy promises equality and inclusion if countries align with U.S. interests and values, which include denial of self-rule, militarism, and the deployment of anti-ballistic missile defense systems, even at the cost of their own civilians’ safety. Rather than leading with the military first to maintain its position in the global hierarchy, the U.S. should embrace a feminist foreign policy to deconstruct its system of racial rule and work towards demilitarization. Fortunately, some members of the U.S. Congressional Progressive Caucus have taken note and proposed the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century resolution which draws from a feminist foreign policy by shifting away from militarism and corporate interests and focusing on peacebuilding and the needs of everyday people.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has positioned itself at the top of the hierarchical global system. Yet, much has changed since the U.S. ascension to power in the mid-20th century. The disastrous two-decade-long U.S.-led war on terror did not go unnoticed. The global response to the Ukrainian-Russo War illustrates these changing dynamics. Virtually no countries from the Global South have joined the sanctions brigade against Russia. As the U.S. and its allies frame the Ukrainian conflict as the fight to maintain the rules-based system threatened by Russia, many countries of the Global South call foul. In their perception, there is no rules-based order and, if there was, the U.S. and its allies most frequently violate the rules of sovereignty and international law. Their lived experiences of colonialism and, later, foreign military intervention geared toward regime change inform their resistance to falling in line with the U.S. version of a “rules-based” system.

Amid the changing global dynamics and an evolving crisis, perhaps this is a moment for the U.S. not to reassert its global superiority and resurrect Cold War-era alliances but to reframe its foreign policy entirely. In line with the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century resolution proposed in January 2022, the U.S. should more fully embrace a feminist foreign policy. Practically, a feminist foreign policy framework would prioritize supporting Ukrainian and anti-war Russian civil society over multi-billion-dollar arms sales to Ukraine. Even amidst an authoritarian government that criminalizes all dissent, a social contract between Russian civilians and the government still exists. As sanctions bear down on Russian society as a direct consequence of the conflict, it is possible the existing social contract will become frayed, leading more Russians to express discontent with the war. Even if Russian protest and dissent is incapable of swaying Putin, encouraging and expressing solidarity with a free and robust Russian civil society can contribute to peace. Moving away from a state-centric view of interests, a feminist foreign policy centers marginalized communities and citizen welfare. Moreover, embracing a feminist foreign policy would also deconstruct the unequal power dynamics of the global hierarchy. Feminist foreign policy is a framework to grapple with power systems. Reconsidering security from an intersectional and civilian perspective can move the discussion away from realist interpretations prioritizing state power and militarism. This would, in turn, help dismantle the global system upheld by historicist racial rule by emphasizing the needs of all people (and countries), not just the loudest and most powerful. [KH]

Questions Raised

  • How would a feminist foreign policy centering the most marginalized people and communities globally challenge military alliances such as NATO?

Continued Reading

Rodriguez, J.L. (2021, April 27). Explaining Latin America’s contradictory reactions to the war in Ukraine. War on the Rocks. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from

Harris, G. (2018, June 19). Trump administration withdraws U.S. from U.N. human rights council. The New York Times. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from

Krumm, R. (2022, March 15). The state that doesn’t know its people. International Politics and Society. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from

Centre for Feminist Policy. (n.d.). Feminist Foreign Policy. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from

Hathaway, O. (2020, October 2). Reengaging on treaties and other international agreements (part I): President Donald Trump’s rejection of international law. Just Security. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from

Kagan, R. (2022, April 6). The price of hegemony. Real Clear Politics. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from

Jayapal, P., & Lee, B. (2022, January 24). A U.S. foreign policy fit for the 21st century. Foreign Policy. Retrieved May 18, 2022, from


Centre for a Feminist Foreign Policy:

Congressional Progressive Caucus:

Key words:  militarism, hierarchy, race, class, South Korea, USA

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