U.S. President Donald Trump’s brief visit to Seoul, the shortest leg on his East Asia tour, and his address at the South Korean National Assembly has led to various positive news accounts. Media reports extolled revamped U.S. policy toward the so-called “Indo-Pacific” as well as an apparent newfound flexibility on the part of Trump toward a diplomatic solution with North Korea. However, as Van Jackson, senior lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, noted in an email exchange: “The theme that I see emerging from the trip is ‘Illusion of Achievement,’” and “every seemingly positive story coming out of the trip is artificial and vastly overstated.”
In fairness, Jackson continued, such trips usually “involve a bureaucratic scramble for deliverables, many of which were already in the works even if the trip never happened.” Trump’s apparent achievements in Seoul represent just that, namely, agreements already underway. Moreover, the visit did nothing to address and, indeed, highlighted various dilemmas faced by Seoul in relation to their American ally.
In terms of achievements already secured, most revolved around measures taken to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance’s defense and war-fighting capabilities. In line with last week’s security and military meetings in Seoul, Trump hailed plans for increased rotational deployment of U.S. strategic assets as part his Reaganesque effort to secure “peace through strength,” including recent deployment of three U.S. Nimitz-class supercarriers and a nuclear submarine to regional waters. In addition, Presidents Moon and Trump agreed “to push forward our cooperation at an unprecedented level to bolster Korea’s self-defense capabilities.” Again, this directly follows the 49th ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting’s (SCM) Joint Communique. During the Trump-Moon Summit, both sides finalized the earlier decision to lift limits on the payload of ROK missiles. They also agreed to immediately begin negotiations on Seoul’s development and acquisition of the most advanced U.S. military surveillance assets and, potentially, nuclear-powered submarines. The latter are currently prohibited under the U.S.-ROK 123 Nuclear Agreement.
Now for the dilemmas, the first being trade. Similar to his statements in Tokyo, Trump proclaimed Seoul would order billions of dollars worth of U.S. military equipment, which “for them makes a lot of sense and for us mean jobs and reducing our trade deficit with South Korea.” Nevertheless, it is dubious that such orders will lead to an appreciable increase in jobs (so much as greater profits for a select few weapons manufacturers). Moreover, whatever the effect on the deficit, Trump’s desire to rework the KORUS FTA, a deal he said “has been quite unsuccessful and not very good for the” United States, likely will not abate. In fact, as Donald Manzullo, president of the Korea Economic Institute (KEI), notes, it seems Trump sees U.S. support for ROK security as leverage for pressure on trade, which “makes the KORUS even more fragile.” For Trump, such transactional bargaining makes sense and may also be perceived as a kind of victory at a time of historically low approval numbers, ongoing FBI investigations, and legislative difficulties at home. Meanwhile, for Seoul, forced to make concessions to Trump’s economic nationalism in exchange for security, it appears a blithe disregard for their difficult position.
Next, another goal of Trump’s Asia trip is to tighten security cooperation between the United States and its allies, both to confront North Korea’s nuclear program but also promote a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.” One key element of is the enhancement of trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan missile defense efforts as part of the larger U.S.-led regional ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. However, while strengthening such cooperation is “taken for granted in Washington,” it is not so in Seoul. Although Japan officially joined the U.S.-led system in 2006, just last week ROK Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told National Assembly lawmakers the ROK was not considering any more deployments of the U.S. THAAD system, would not participate in the U.S.-led regional BMD networks, and sees trilateral cooperation solely through a peninsular lens, not as a trilateral military alliance extending beyond the North Korean threat or Korean Peninsula. In an interview last Friday, Moon reiterated Kang’s position and indicated the two rationales behind it.
First, Seoul views Tokyo’s moves to take on a bigger role in international security with skepticism. Moon does not want to see Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe use the North Korea threat as “an excuse for military expansion.” As I previously noted, Pyongyang’s provocations have led to greater functional cooperation, but fears of Japanese militarization, historical animosity, and antagonistic nationalist discourses remain important obstacles. Second, and related, Seoul hopes to maintain and improve its relations with Beijing, its largest trade partner and key diplomatic partner vis-à-vis North Korea. On October 30, Seoul and Beijing agreed to move past their year-long stand-off over THAAD, with Seoul stressing it is not aimed at any third country beyond North Korea. Seoul’s insistence on not joining the U.S.-led BMD system, as well as limiting THAAD deployments and security ties with Tokyo, is part of Moon’s intention to “pursue balanced diplomacy” between the U.S.-ROK alliance and China. By enhancing the U.S.-ROK alliance but keeping it strongly focused on North Korea, Moon hopes to carve out space for solid relations with Beijing.
Officially, the United States welcomed the apparent settlement of the Seoul-Beijing THAAD dispute. Yet there are signs that Kang’s comments may have upset U.S. Forces Korea Commander General Vincent K. Brooks, who remarked after a meeting with Kang, “We have an alliance relationship and we should look very closely at the words said by the foreign ministry.” Simply stated, U.S. officials view the alliance as derivative of and embedded within a wider strategic setting; Seoul’s concerns, understandably, are narrower. This leads to the final and most importantly dilemma: the fundamental difference between Seoul and Washington’s order of preferences vis-à-vis North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
As Jackson remarked: “The press has made a big deal of Trump’s musing that it makes sense for North Korea to negotiate, but he’s made comments like that before and Kim Jong-un has no interest in negotiations if the goal is denuclearization. For those who wish for a diplomatic solution in Korea, Trump’s temperament is less important than the objective of U.S. North Korea policy.” What is the objective? The first U.S. priority has been repeatedly stated: the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. According to Trump and his aides, Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons, particularly the capability to miniaturize and deploy warheads on ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The problem: North Korea already has nuclear weapons, will not give them up, and appears intent on developing just such capability.
On the contrary, while Moon listed denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a key priority, it is not the primary one. Speaking from the same National Assembly podium a week before Trump, Moon laid out his five principles for a peaceful peninsula. The first principle and top priority “is to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula. Thus, armed conflict must be avoided under any circumstance.” Although Moon reiterated the need to sternly respond to any North Korean provocation within a firm U.S.-ROK alliance as the fifth principle, from Seoul’s perspective, Pyongyang’s mere possession of an enhanced nuclear and ICBM capability does not in itself justify war.
Herein lies the crucial and seemingly widening gulf between Seoul and Washington. Historically, for the United States, the standoff on the Korean Peninsula has been one of extended deterrence, meaning deterring an attack against its distant Korean ally. Yet, with Pyongyang’s dogged pursuit of nuclear equipped ICBMs, the confrontation is transforming into one of immediate deterrence, putting U.S. territory directly at risk. This does not, in essence, change the existential nature of the North Korean threat for Seoul, but it does change the strategic dynamic for Washington, which has demonstrated it does not respond well to real or even perceived threats. Indeed, the qualitatively new reality has already produced an ever-growing drumbeat of war, with U.S. policy elites calling for preventative strikes based on distorted historical analogies and an apparently unmitigated faith in surgical U.S. strikes.
The bottom line: Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric aside, articulated U.S. policy and the growing support for precipitous military actions among the DC beltway crowd is sufficient enough evidence for Seoul to wonder whether or not, when push comes to shove, it will be sacrificed to save Seattle.