On February 12, 2017, North Korea launched a ballistic missile, which traveled for about 500 kilometers toward the Sea of Japan. This was the first time that North Korea had launched a missile since the inauguration of new U.S. President Donald Trump and served as another indication of North Korea’s steady progress in its missile technology. Reports about North Korea resuming operation of the Yongbyon plutonium reactor was another sign that North Korea is determined to make further progress in its nuclear weapons program. Given recent strides, North Korea appears ever closer to developing a powerful miniaturized nuclear weapon that can be launched against Seoul. North Korea’s provocations have become much more frequent and its nuclear technology much more threatening. In short, the North Korean nuclear threat has become an existential threat to South Korea.
While the nuclear threat from North Korea continues to grow, South Korea’s ongoing political crisis is making it more difficult for South Korea to respond effectively to North Korean provocations and coordinate a coherent policy against North Korea with its regional partners. While the political scandal has paralyzed political institutions and caused massive protests in the streets, South Korea’s leadership vacuum has also made it extremely challenging for South Korea to manage its relationships with regional partners. The Trump presidency, South Korea’s contentious relationship with Japan, and China’s vehement opposition to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment make it all the less likely that South Korea will successfully coordinate a policy against a growing North Korean threat.
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South Korea is about to embark on the most challenging era of its alliance relationship with the United States as the Trump administration begins to formulate its policy toward the Korean peninsula. Some may openly question this assessment in light of Trump’s phone call with South Korea’s acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to South Korea. During his call, Trump assured Hwang that “the U.S. is a hundred percent with South Korea and the alliance will be better than ever before.” He also reiterated the United States’ ironclad commitment to defend South Korea through extended deterrence and other military capabilities. During his visit to South Korea, Mattis also promised that the Trump administration will be treating the North Korean nuclear threat as a top security issue. While it may be reassuring for South Korea to have Trump and Mattis reiterate the importance of the alliance, both countries will need to address several challenges and sensitive issues in the bilateral relationship this year.
The first major challenge for Seoul would be to coordinate coherent policy on North Korea with Trump’s administration. A major issue of concern for Seoul in terms of policy coordination is that its leadership lacks a personal relationship with Trump. As a businessman, Trump values personal ties with his partners. The unfortunate news for South Korea is that there is no effective leader available at present who can cultivate a strong relationship with the U.S. president. President Park Geun-hye is awaiting the verdict of the Constitutional Court on her impeachment; Hwang, as acting president, is a temporary voice. This means that Seoul may not be able to effectively voice its opinions and provide input while the Trump administration is formulating a new North Korea policy.
Furthermore, regardless of the Constitutional Court’s decision, South Korea will elect a new president by the end of the year. The next administration in South Korea may prefer a different approach to the North and may not follow through on policy understandings reached between the Trump administration and the current interim government. Such discord in terms of North Korea policy is bound to cause friction in U.S.-Korea alliance. If the next South Korean leader and Trump disagree on how to manage the North Korean problem, there is also a possibility that Trump may consider striking a deal with Pyongyang in a bilateral fashion. North Korea has historically preferred bilateral dialogue with the United States as a means to isolate and diminish South Korea’s position in the Korean Peninsula, and Trump is a dealmaker who would be happy to bargain with North Korea as long as he believes the deal serves American interests. While it is too early to predict how Trump will approach North Korea, there is no doubt that the ongoing political vacuum has become a missed opportunity for South Korea to influence the Trump administration’s new North Korea policy, and created greater chances of policy discord between Seoul and Washington.
The second major test for the U.S.-Korea alliance under the Trump presidency would be efforts at crisis management. Historically, the United States has usually encouraged South Korean restraint whenever North Korea provoked South Korea. But now with Trump in office, there is a chance that the U.S. may act unilaterally or preemptively in retaliating against North Korea in the wake of a North Korean provocation. While the Trump administration has responded with uncharacteristic restraint in the aftermath of North Korea’s missile test on February 11, this should be taken as a sign of confusion, not strategic restraint. Trump’s irascible temperament significantly heightens the chances of inadvertent escalation and overreaction on the U.S. side in the case of another North Korean provocation. Depending on his response to North Korea’s actions, Trump may easily turn the United States from a stabilizing factor into a destabilizing factor on the Korean Peninsula. In the event of a future crisis, it would be insufficient for South Korea merely to practice self-restraint. South Korea would probably also need to invest all of its diplomatic efforts to prevent a U.S. overreaction that could further escalate tensions.
The third destabilizing factor in U.S.-Korea relations may be the Trump administration’s attempts to renegotiate the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (USKFTA) and the upcoming renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). In his campaign speeches, Trump repeatedly promised to renegotiate the USKFTA and bring back American jobs “stolen” by South Korea. While it remains to be seen whether his campaign rhetoric will materialize into specific policies, given his overall “America First” platform, South Korea should be prepared for a painful renegotiation of the deal. The renewal of the SMA later this year will most likely also become a source of friction in the bilateral relationship, given Trump’s assertion that Seoul does not contribute enough financially to the alliance. As Washington and Seoul renegotiate how much each side will pay for the costs of stationing 28,500 American troops in South Korea, South Korea will likely face a very tough negotiating partner.
Ultimately, much of Trump’s policy regarding the Korean Peninsula will be dependent on the balance of power within the Trump administration. It is too early to tell which parts of the foreign policy bureaucracy will take the leading role in formulating U.S. policy on these issues: the White House National Security Council, the Department of State under Rex Tillerson, or the Department of Defense under Mattis. It also remains to be seen how the reorganization of the National Security Council and Stephen Bannon’s participation as a permanent member will influence U.S. national security policy, especially toward North Korea. South Korea can hope for cooler heads to prevail and sustain the alliance, but it should nonetheless be prepared for the worst case scenario in which the American hardliners risk a war with North Korea while demanding that South Korea bears a greater share of the cost of maintaining the alliance.
South Korea’s Deteriorating Relations with Japan
In addition to challenges in the U.S.-Korea alliance, South Korea’s contentious relationship with Japan has deteriorated further in recent months. Although South Korea and Japan appeared to be making progress toward reconciliation since the comfort women deal in 2015, the “final and irreversible” deal is on the brink of falling apart. The Park administration has been unable to implement the deal due to its political crisis and the public’s vehement opposition. The comfort women deal remains highly controversial and unpopular in South Korea and some have called on the South Korean government to return the compensation of 1 billion yen (roughly $9 million) back to Japan. While the deal was largely supported in Japan, the Abe administration has begun to question the South Korean government’s commitment to solving the issue of comfort women statues in front of Japanese diplomatic compounds, especially in light of the installment of a new comfort women statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan last December. Japanese government protested the move by recalling its ambassador to South Korea and halting negotiations on currency swaps between the Korean won and the Japanese yen.
Some in South Korea have dismissed Japan’s recall of its ambassador as a meaningless symbolic overture, but the absence of a Japanese ambassador in Seoul indeed represents the current poor state of the relationship. The demise of the comfort women deal will most likely perpetuate the negative impasse in ROK-Japan relations, in which South Korea views Japan’s apologies and compensations as insincere and insufficient whereas Japan views South Korean demands as unending and overwhelming.
South Korea’s relationship with Japan is expected to experience further turbulence if the bill to rescind the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan passes in the Korean National Assembly this year. The rise in public sentiments against Japan and the emergence of a populist presidential candidate like Lee Jae-myung – who identified Japan as an enemy state – will also pose greater impediments to the improvement of ROK-Japan relations. Most importantly, worsening ROK-Japan relations will have a negative spillover effect on trilateral cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan, making it more difficult to coordinate policy with regards to North Korea.
Frictions in Sino-South Korean Relations
South Korea is also unlikely to recover from a deteriorating relationship with China unless the next administration decides to cancel deployment of the THAAD system. Despite Park’s diplomatic overtures in the early days of her administration to strengthen South Korea’s relationship with China, her decision to deploy THAAD, a U.S. anti-missile system, has resulted in a considerable friction in the Sino-South Korean relationship. China has already taken a series of retaliatory measures, ranging from halting high-level military dialogue to enhancing scrutiny of Korean products.
In light of growing Chinese retaliation and political paralysis within South Korea, some have questioned whether THAAD will be deployed as scheduled. But it is increasingly unlikely that South Korea will cancel the THAAD deployment. Earlier this January, the leading presidential contender, Moon Jae-in of the opposition Minjoo Party, reversed his position and stated that it would be difficult for the next South Korea administration to cancel the deployment of THAAD. He has also added a high-profile general who has strongly advocated for the deployment of THAAD to his national security team. Ahn Hee-jung, the presidential candidate with the second highest approval rating, has also echoed similar sentiments, stating that he respects the agreement between the United States and South Korea with regards to the deployment of the THAAD system. Of all the major candidates who have declared to run for the presidency this year, only one candidate is running on a platform to cancel the THAAD deployment; others have expressed either conditional or full support of the deployment.
If the next administration in Seoul is to deploy THAAD, it must be ready for considerable friction in its relationship with China. China has already vowed to work with Russia to sharpen their retaliatory measures against South Korea. In a white paper issued last month, the Chinese authorities reiterated their strong opposition to the THAAD deployment, stating that the deployment would “seriously damage regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of China and other countries in the region.” The white paper strongly urged the United States and the ROK to stop the deployment. A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson also indicated that China’s opposition to the THAAD deployment has not and will not change in the future. Given Beijing’s uncompromising position, the THAAD deployment will most likely remain as a major irritant in the bilateral relationship regardless of Seoul’s efforts to restore the relationship.
South Korea’s political crisis is transpiring precisely at a time of growing threats from North Korea, deteriorating relationships with its regional partners, and an uncertain future with its ally. The leadership vacuum in Seoul is making it more difficult for South Korea to coordinate and develop a coherent North Korea policy with its regional partners. Regardless of whether the next administration in South Korea adopts a more hawkish or dovish approach to North Korea, policy coordination with regional partners is absolutely critical for a successful North Korea policy. If the history of failure in North Korea policy speaks to any lesson, it is that incoherent policies by different regional actors are destined to fail.
As the presidential election season approaches after the impeachment ruling sometime this spring, presidential debates and policy discourse in South Korea should be less about Park and her political scandal and more about how South Korea can recover from its political paralysis and navigate an exit from its diplomatic difficulties. Specifically, voters should ask presidential candidates how they will manage South Korea’s friction with regional neighbors and coordinate a successful policy against North Korea. The diplomatic situation is too dire for voters to be preoccupied much longer with Park’s scandals.
Benjamin Lee is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program. You can follow him on Twitter: @lbr6j28.