Japan, South Korea and China displayed radically different approaches to currying favor with the visiting American president.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump is wrapping up a 12-day Asia tour that included visits to Japan, South Korea and China.
Trump’s visits to those countries came at a time when the presidents of China and South Korea and the prime minister of Japan are all more popular and politically stronger in their home countries than Trump is in his. Last Tuesday’s U.S. elections were a renunciation of Trumpism. Trump’s most approval rating remains below 40 percent, the lowest nine-month rating of any modern president.
Yet the host East Asian countries bent over backward to please Trump who, even politically diminished at home and possibly under investigation by a special counsel, remains the head of the world’s biggest economy and military. The latter point is of keen interest to Japan, South Korea and China, the three nations closest to North Korea.
So how did each country try to win the affections of Trump? Each nation is Confucian, but each adapted Confucianism to fit their culture. Likewise, each took a different tack on Trump.
Japan fed Trump, who is famously a creature of habit with a limited palette, American comfort food. They also flattered him and let him hang out with a celebrity, ticking all his boxes.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took Trump golfing with Hideki Matsuyama, the world’s No. 3-ranked professional golfer. Instead of serving him Japan’s famous sushi, Abe gave Trump a hamburger – made with American beef. Abe gave Trump – who likes his gilt-edged accessories – a golden table runner. And he gave Trump a ball cap that read, “Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater,” reminiscent of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign caps.
Abe has been smart with Trump. He was on a plane to Washington five minutes (okay, 10 days) after Trump was elected to meet with him, making sure Japan was first line at the White House among Asian rivals.
Not only have Abe’s people meticulously researched Trump’s preferences and ego needs, the Japanese proved ego-less hosts. They knew, among other demands, that Trump didn’t want food that was too spicy or “whole fish with the heads still on.” The Japanese knew better than try to foist anything “too Japanese” on Trump. One could argue they are being gracious hosts, even if it means temporarily subverting their national identity.
Trump gloried in this, and appears to genuinely like Abe.
Both South Korea and President Moon Jae-in had a late start with Trump. Moon wasn’t elected South Korean president until May of this year, after several months of a placeholder leader put installed after former president Park Geun-hye’s December 2016 impeachment. Forged in the Korean War, the U.S. and South Korea have a unique and strong alliance. But right when South Korea needed to meet and bond with President-elect Trump, it effectively had no president. This put South Korea on the back foot.
Further, President Moon had made some blunt criticisms of Trump’s inflammatory comments about North Korea. Suffice it to say, this was not the making of a Donald-Jae-in bromance.
When Trump came to Seoul, South Korea went a different way than Japan – it went full Korea.
Instead of serving Trump American beef, Moon served Trump a traditional Korean meal featuring a head-on(!) prawn and beef marinated in 360-year-old soy sauce, a way of demonstrating the ancient superiority of Korean cuisine. South Korean first lady Kim Jung-sook served traditional Korean refreshments – including persimmons she personally picked and dried – to U.S. first lady Melania Trump.
Instead of working hard to make Trump feel at ease, the Koreans inserted prickly regional politics into dinner. The shrimp Trump ate (or didn’t) came from waters around the Korean island of Dokdo, which Japan also claims. And Moon invited one of the surviving Korean “comfort women” – women who were kidnapped by the Japanese military prior to and during World War II and forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers – to dinner. Awkward.
Despite this, Trump delivered a glowing and well-received speech to the South Korean parliament, extolling the alliance between the two nations and significantly ratcheting back his “fire and fury” rhetoric toward North Korea.
Next, Trump went to China to visit with another of his bros – President Xi Jinping, whom Trump bonded with when Xi visited Mar-a-Lago in April. To impress and woo Trump, China went Big China and planned some impressive gestures. Possibly remembering how much Trump enjoyed the big military parade French President Emmanuel Macron threw for him during his Bastille Day visit this year, Xi gave a military honor guard that appeared to effectively wow Trump.
Also as part of the “state visit-plus,” as China called it, China gave Trump a formal banquet and extra one-on-one time with Xi. Trump toured the show-stopping Forbidden City in Beijing, which was closed to everyone but the two presidents. Trump and Melania were greeted at the airport by dozens of enthusiastic children waiving American and Chinese flags.
Which of the three nations’ approaches will prove to have been the most successful?
South Korea clearly had ground to make up, given its late start with Trump and the lack – so far – of a bosom-buddy relationship between Trump and Moon. And South Korea stands to lose something from the U.S. immediately – at Trump’s demand, the U.S. is forcing South Korea to renegotiate the five-year-old free trade agreement between the two nations. If this goes sideways, it could ignite a trade war between Korea and the U.S. and lead to new tariffs.
But America desperately needs South Korea – no other nation knows North Korea better or is more equipped to deal with it, which, thankfully, is a fact that Trump’s generals and professional diplomats understand.
When I worked for Hyundai Motor in Seoul, we would often take visiting foreign journalists to Korean dinners that featured musicians playing traditional Korean instruments. Invariably, the musicians – who were trying diligently to be hospitable to the visiting foreigners – would play Beatles or even ABBA tunes on their ancient stringed Korean instruments.
Instead of being appreciative, the journalists were often amused by the surprise cultural dissonance, and laughed at the performance. After a few of these, I asked the musicians to play traditional Korean songs, to give the visiting journalists a real taste of Korea.
Maybe Korea didn’t help its cause by serving Trump kimchi instead of ketchup, but I admire the Koreans for sticking to their Koreanness.
Frank Ahrens is the author of Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan (Harper Business) and the founder of an East-West business consultancy.