South Korea Needs a United Front With the U.S.
His differences with U.S. President Donald Trump may have helped win Moon Jae-in the presidency of South Korea. Now he and Trump need to focus on what unites them.
During the campaign, Moon took issue with the U.S. administration's approach to North Korea. In the past, he's called for engaging economically with the North and restarting joint development projects, rather than seeking to isolate Kim Jong Un's regime. He opposed what he portrayed as the rushed deployment of a U.S. system designed to shoot down North Korean missiles, saying the decision should have been left to the new government. Meanwhile, Trump roiled the waning days of the campaign by threatening to scrap the bilateral free-trade agreement between the two allies and demanding that South Korea pay the $1 billion bill for the anti-missile system.
Continued posturing would be counterproductive for both men. Moon's first task as president has to be to restore faith in South Korea's political and economic system. The corruption scandal that brought down his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, sparked public fury at ties between government officials and the corporate titans running Korea's sprawling industrial conglomerates, known as chaebol. Moon has backed reforms that would make the chaebol more transparent and lessen their grip on the economy. But he'll need help from opposition lawmakers to pass any substantive changes.
As for Trump, harping on supposed trade inequities and squeezing a valued partner for money it doesn't legally owe is shortsighted and futile. The fact is, the U.S. has benefited no less than South Korea from their bilateral trade agreement, and any flaws in the deal can surely be addressed without calling into question the entire pact. Complaining about how much it costs to help defend South Korea only raises doubts about the U.S.'s reliability -- to no discernible end, as more responsible members of Trump's administration are inevitably forced to walk back his comments.
Most important, any daylight between the U.S. and South Korea undermines the goal of reining in North Korea's nuclear program. For one thing, disunity eases pressure on China to play a more responsible role on the Korean peninsula. Although Chinese leaders are making encouraging noises, it's unclear how far they're willing to go to pressure Kim. If they believe the new South Korean administration favors a more lenient approach, they'll have every reason to slacken their efforts as well.
North Korea would exploit any divisions even more eagerly. The Pyongyang regime has survived and continued to expand its nuclear capabilities by skillfully taking advantage of gaps in the global sanctions net; even now, as relations with China fray, it's looking to expand ties with Russia.
Despite their rhetoric, the new U.S. and South Korean leaders really aren't that far apart in their approaches to Pyongyang. Both men say they're not looking to overthrow Kim. Both say they are open to negotiating with him, under the right conditions. The best chance of achieving those conditions -- and it's a slim one -- is to convince Kim that he faces a resolute and united international front. Trump and Moon should be doing everything in their power to build one.
--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Michael Newman.
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