By Tim Beal
The Trump-Moon Summit
It is traditional for an incoming South Korean president to make the first overseas visit to Washington to pledge fealty. South Korea is not alone in this, of course, and even Donald Trump, held in such disdain, often scarcely disguised, by foreign leaders had a long waiting list of suitors. That is the nature of international power. However Moon’s visit displayed more than the usual degree of obsequiousness. His pre-summit conciliatory statements were interpreted by many as a ploy to hide his real resolve to chart a new course for South Korea. For instance, the libertarian commentator Doug Bandow, with his usual mixture of realism and fantasy, wrote in Forbes in May, just after the election, that:
The two presidents spoke last week by phone shortly after Moon took office and have agreed to a summit next month. Talks might help, but even friendly discussions won’t hide the fact that the two countries’ interests differ in substantial ways. And if President Moon pursues policies which undercut Washington’s objectives, relations could prove quite difficult: President Trump doesn’t suffer criticism gladly. The frigid relationship between George W. Bush and Kim Dae-jung might serve as a model.
U.S.-South Korean ties have varied over time, in response to changing international conditions as well as shifts in the respective governments. However, the Trump-Moon match likely will present a special challenge. Donald Trump may find the serious and principled Moon to be a tougher adversary than Kim Jong-un.
In the event President Trump must have been pleasantly surprised, if he noticed at all, that the new South Korean president was, on the surface at least, neither principled nor tough. The scene was set in two different ways before the actual meeting before the presidents.
On the emotional, public relations level, Moon’s first engagement in the United States was a visit to the Marine Corps Chosin Memorial in Virginia commemorating the famous battle in the Korean War between the US-led forces and the Chinese and North Koreans.
An Associated Press report put this into context:
South Korea’s new leader has vowed to stand firmly with President Donald Trump against North Korea, playing down his past advocacy of a softer approach toward the nuclear-armed nation as he made his first visit as president to Washington.
President Moon Jae-in offered an emotional tribute Wednesday to Marines who fought in a fierce battle in the Korean War that helped in the mass evacuation of Korean civilians, including his own parents. Moon said that without those American sacrifices, he would not be here today.
Moon was underscoring his personal commitment to the U.S.-South Korean alliance in the face of questions over whether his inclination toward engagement with North Korea despite its rapidly advancing nuclear capability could lead to strains in relations with Washington.
Moon’s visit to the US marine memorial certainly played well in Washington, but seems like a gratuitous affront both to Pyongyang and to Beijing from someone who wanted to build bridges.
On the policy level, as Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations noted with approval:
…Moon’s strategy of alignment with Trump on security issues — forecast in public interviews in the weeks prior to the summit — took almost every security issue off the table before Moon arrived in Washington.
That being the case the primary function of the summit meeting was to establish ‘personal chemistry.’ Moon appeared confident that this had been achieved:
On this relationship with Trump, Moon said, “We saw eye to eye more than I expected, and he was very respectful and kind.”
“Speaking before the US media, President Trump used the terms ‘great chemistry’ and ‘very very, very good,’” he added.
‘Respectful and kind’ are not usually qualities associated with Donald Trump. The US president also claimed to have ‘great chemistry’ with Chinese president Xi Jinping after their meeting in April; Xi did not boast about it, merely smiled gnomically.
Self-delusion and wishful thinking
Unfortunately it soon became apparent that despite the bonhomie things were not as rosy as portrayed.
Firstly THAAD. Apart from the more general and longstanding issue of relations with North Korea, this is perhaps the most immediate in South Korea’s relationship with the United States. It is important in itself, as described above, but it is also symbolic of South Korea’s dilemma. Briefly on a range of issues the interests of the United States and South Korea not merely do not coincide, but are at odds. Sanctions on Iran to take one example from many. The United States has its own strategic reasons for its policy towards Iran and hostility to the current Islamic Republic, but whatever they are South Korea has no reason to share them. South Korea has no issues with Iran and would not benefit if the Islamic Republic fell and a US-compliant regime were installed. Nevertheless South Korea has been pressured to impose sanctions on Iran at considerable cost to itself.As with Iran, South Korea is compelled to conform to US strategies towards China. However whatever the reasons for US policies, and the potential benefits and costs that might accrue to the United States, they are not shared with South Korea. On the contrary South Korea incurs more economic damage and greater danger, for no possible benefit. If the US did go to war against China what possible good could come to South Korea? So THAAD is important in itself but more than that it symbolises and encapsulates the dilemma South Korea faces being caught between the US and China. This dilemma is frequently mentioned in the South Korean press but only at a superficial level. Moreover articles in the South Korean media on the Chinese reaction to THAAD are commonly infused with wishful thinking and a refusal to face up to the facts. We are told that economic danger will really not be that great, that the Chinese are being petulant and that this will pass, that skilful South Korea diplomacy will make the problem go away. However, the problem has not gone away, and will not go away.
So if there is one pressing issue that President Moon needed to discuss with President Trump at the summit it was THAAD. For the conservatives this was a matter of pledging loyalty to the US and for the progressives it was a question of defusing the danger that THAAD posed to South Korea. Yet in the preparations for the summit it was reported that Cheong Wa Dae (the Blue House, or presidential office) ‘Wants to Keep THAAD off Summit Agenda.’ And so it came to pass. The Chosun Ilbo said that ‘Korea, U.S. Skirt THAAD Controversy During Summit’ although it is clear that it was Moon alone, that was doing the skirting because ‘The omission seems to have been the result of strenuous efforts by the government here, which was wary of getting off to a rough start with the notoriously volatile Trump.’
Then there was the question of the free trade agreement – KORUS FTA – signed by the Obama administration and earlier labelled by Donald Trump ‘“a horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.”’ His intention to renegotiate the agreement was clearly signalled. Finding a satisfactorily anodyne way of handling the contradiction between Trump’s intention and Moon’s wishes delayed the summit joint statement by seven hours.
A further result of the summit is that it reported that the transfer of OPCON has been further delayed, from ‘within the term’ [of Moons’ five year presidency] as promised to ‘at an early date’ which since it is contingent on ‘the situation with North Korea’s nuclear and missile advancements’ may mean sometime in the deep, dark future. In the meantime Trump also signalled, yet again, that South Korea would have to pay more for the US military presence in Korea including the cost of relocating forces to Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul out of range, it was hoped, of North Korean artillery. Despite the costs this might be a forlorn hope. The relocation costs are in addition to the cost, borne by South Korea, of cleaning up contamination from USFK bases.
The response of the South Korean media, and the officials and politicians up to Moon Jae-in himself whose views they mirrored and amplified was largely a mixture of self-delusion and wishful thinking.
It was natural that the South Korean media would give much more coverage to the summit than the American. However what the Koreans did not bring out was how perfunctory US coverage had been. The US media, again naturally, finds little of interest to report when a foreign leader kowtows because is the natural order of things. It is when they don’t that media ears prick up; thus North Korea gets much more attention in the US press. So too with President Moon’s visit.
The main article in the New York Times that mentioned the summit was about wider issues –‘Trump Takes More Aggressive Stance With U.S. Friends and Foes in Asia’ – and it was buried on page A8. The Washington Post did have one by-lined article on the summit but the heading showed that the real subject was North Korea – ‘With South Korean president, Trump denounces ‘reckless and brutal’ regime in North Korea’. The summit was not considered newsworthy enough to hit the Washington Post’s twice daily email alert. The press conference was relatively poorly attended with ‘dozens of open seats’.
In general, the JoongAng Ilbo proclaimed that it had been ‘A successful summit’. THAAD, as we have noted was ‘skirted over’ but other issues that were discussed were transmogrified into Korean victories. On economic issues the Korea Times decided that South Korean investment into the US demonstrated that ‘Moon’s US visit brings economic achievements’. The Joint Statement did not specifically mention KORUS FTA. However it did mention steel –one of America’s big gripes – under US pressure ‘fair and free trade’ was simplified to ‘fair trade’ a Trump slogan that meant trade where the US balance was positive, which it is not with South Korea or a lot of other trade partners. There was no doubt that the trade imbalance was on Trump’s mind and the existing FTA was to be torn up and refashioned, to America’s benefit. When that could no longer be denied President Moon claimed that ‘Trump’s trade comments were “outside of what was agreed upon.”’
However the main issue was North Korea and here the South Korean narrative was embarrassingly delusional. The Joint Statement excoriated North Korea, vowed to maintain and increase sanctions, eulogised the US-South Korea relationship, and had this to say about negotiations:
Noting that sanctions are a tool of diplomacy, the two leaders emphasized that the door to dialogue with North Korea remains open under the right circumstances…
President Trump supported the ROK’s leading role in fostering an environment for peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula…
President Trump supported President Moon’s aspiration to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs.
This mishmash of PR talk was converted into exuberant headlines, such as the Chosun Ilbo’s ‘Moon Wins U.S. Support for “Leading Role” in Talks with N.Korea.’ It was all nonsense, of course. The US was not going to hand over a leading role in negotiations with North Korea to South Korea any more than it would give the lead in talks with China to New Zealand, or with Russia to Poland. The US media had been dismissive. Mark Landler in the New York Times noted that Trump ‘showed little patience for Mr. Moon’s hope for engagement with the North.’ The fantasy was publically exposed when Moon Jae-in did try to open up talks with the North on 17 July. Seoul was roundly told off not merely by Washington but also, rubbing salt in the wound, by Tokyo. Not surprisingly these criticisms were echoed by the conservative press.
No doubt North-South talks will eventually take place but also, no doubt, there will be little progress. Moon has so firmly, and unnecessarily, nailed his flag to the American mast, and has not taken steps to repair North-South relations that he could have, that it is difficult to see Kim Jong Un being enthused. Pragmatism will prevail, and Pyongyang will not refuse out of chagrin to talk to Seoul, but it is unlikely that relations will improve any more than they did under Park Geun-hye.
The Korean Tragedy
Tragedies in Western literature, from the Greeks through to Shakespeare, Dreiser and beyond have a fixed and usually gory denouement. This Korean tragedy has no obvious denouement in sight but the sense of inexorability is still there. Despite Team Trump’s bluster about strategic patience being over it is abundantly clear that they are following Obama’s policy of ‘strategic patience’ – which might be better termed ‘strategic paralysis’ because, like Obama they do not know what to do. They do not want to negotiate peaceful coexistence with North Korea, which means accepting in some form Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent, because of its geopolitical implications. Although it certainly cannot be ruled out, going to war is too dangerous and has drawbacks in terms of the containment of China, hence is unlikely. That leaves muddling along. Moon Jae-in might well have been able to change this but he has endorsed American intransigence leaving the Korean peninsula in a very dangerous situation.
Moon’s fundamental failure has been his commitment to the present US-SK relationship. He sees this as the foundation on which solutions can be built. However the relationship is in fact the problem from which others stem. Principally, but not exclusively, that means relations with North Korea and China while ignoring South Korea. Furthermore by accepting the present relationship with the United States, ‘the US-SK alliance’, he is relinquishing control to America. Instead of autonomously developing a less antagonistic relationship with North Korea by utilising the instruments at his disposal, such as Kaesong or the abducted waitresses, he has subsumed the inter-Korean relationship under the US-SK alliance, so it is subordinated to US North Korea policy. Decisions, if they are made at all, are made in Washington and initiatives such as the July proposals to Pyongyang are doomed not to absolute failure but to very limited outcomes. Pyongyang will spend limited time talking to the servant when it knows that it is negotiations with the master that count.
It did not have to be this way, but with Moon having chosen the path he has it is difficult to see how he can turn back and rescue the situation. He is trapped by his original failure to challenge South Korea’s servile status. This is not to say that choosing the path of autonomy, of seeking to extricate South Korea from the US alliance would have been easy. There would be considerable opposition within South Korea where the military and civil bureaucracies, and wide swathes of society, have been nurtured for generations within the American embrace. The actions of the defense establishment over the rushed deployment of THAAD in defiance of the Blue House, and the July prohibitions on the entry of American-Korean peace activists Christine Ahn and Juyeon Rhee are indications of resistance by what might be called the South Korean deep state. It is uncertain to what degree a South Korean president can enlarge autonomy, let alone move towards independence without provoking a crisis. Moon Jae-in, as with any progressive South Korean president, is vulnerable to being removed from office by impeachment or coup and must tread carefully.
However the special circumstances in which Moon Jae-in came to office presented an historic opportunity. On the one hand there was the popular impetus towards change and renovation provided by the Candlelight Revolution and on the other the mounting criticism of Donald Trump amongst elites worldwide, including South Korea and within the United States itself. It should be cautioned that the disdain for Trump by the American foreign policy establishment has been for his incompetence, and that establishment would not look kindly on a South Korea breaking free from the US alliance. Nevertheless Trump’s low standing does provide leverage. If, for instance Moon had pressed for autonomy at the summit and this had precipitated a public crisis in US-SK relations then this might have been blamed on Trump. South Korean autonomy would have been increased but this might have passed less noticed amongst the slew of criticisms of Trump.
Moon Jae-in should have used this historic opportunity and moved quickly during the honeymoon period that new leaders traditionally have to refashion the US-South Korea relationship in the direction of autonomy and eventual independence. This would not have been easy, and might have been fraught with danger, but continuing on the path of subservience towards the United States offers no hope. South Korea will remain a pawn of American policy for the containment of China and the maintenance of global hegemony. This long-term predicament is compounded by the impulsive and strategically incoherent actions of President Donald Trump. The ‘August Crisis’, as it has been labelled by the South Korea press, and which is continuing at the time of writing, will probably pass. Trump’s minders, especially and crucially Secretary of Defense Mattis will almost certainly prevent an American attack on North Korea. One advantage of Trump’s narcissism is that though he has a reputation for nursing grievances he readily turns, in his own mind, a defeat into a victory. Nevertheless, despite Moon’s phone call s to Trump and delusionary articles in the South Korean media about ‘close and transparent‘ cooperation, and wistful calls that ‘Seoul should make its opposition to war even clearer to Washington’ South Korea really has little traction. It is clear from coverage in the US media that little attention is paid to South Korea. Senator Lindsay Graham’s TV interview on 1 August quoting Trump seems horribly plausible:
Graham said that Trump won’t allow the regime of Kim Jong Un to have an ICBM with a nuclear weapon capability to “hit America.”
“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And He has told me that to my face,” Graham said.
“And that may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States,” the senator said.
South Korea’s tragedy is that Moon Jae-in has failed to realise that if he is to fulfill his allegiance to his people he needs to break free from the status of client and pawn and move towards autonomy and then independence. The ‘Candlelight Revolution’ offered an historic possibility to attempt to do this but President Moon has squandered the opportunity.
Retired New Zealand-based academic Tim Beal has written two books and numerous articles on Korean issues and US global policy. He is an Asia-Pacific Journal contributing editor and writes for NK News and Zoom in Korea amongst others. He maintains the website Asian Geopolitics.