Trump and Korea’s choiceJolted by Donald Trump’s victory in the recent U.S. election, countries from around the world are seriously mulling their own countermeasures. The big picture of the foreign policy and strategy in the “America First” policy stressed by Trump throughout his campaign means that the United States will stop being the police of the world to lead the global order as a superpower. China and Russia will be handed over the order of their continent, while the United States, along with Japan, will prevail only as a maritime superpower. It is a strategy of dividing roles among the superpowers.
During the campaign, Trump visited Henry Kissinger to ask for some tips on diplomacy, Trump’s weak point. After the meeting, Trump complained that there was nothing to learn from him. Kissinger, a renowned advocate of a balance of geopolitical power, values China’s role. Trump either failed to understand Kissinger’s grand explanation or could have been repelled by his preaching, given Trumps’ persistent promotion of America First, isolationism and trade protectionism.
Trump also told U.S. allies that they must pay higher costs for the presence of U.S. troops and they have to fight their own wars if they had to. During the campaign, he even said he is open to a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan. He suggests that the United States has no justification to stop its allies’ nuclear armament to ensure their own security if Washington cannot defend them while paying the enormous defense budgets.
This is a complete reversal of the policy of President Barack Obama, who even won the Nobel Peace Prize with his vision of a nuclear-free world. Just as George W. Bush was notorious for his “ABC” — “All But Clinton” — policy to deny the legacies of his predecessor Bill Clinton, Trump wants to start his domestic and foreign policies with “ABO” — “All But Obama.” In domestic affairs, ObamaCare, or the Affordable Care Act, will likely be the first victim under the Trump administration.
For Korea, Trump’s “ABO” translates into a revision of its free trade agreement with the U.S. and a termination — or retreat — of the rebalancing policy in Asia. South Korea’s strongest deterrence against North Korea’s mounting nuclear and missile provocations is the U.S. strategic assets in Guam. With Trump in the White House, however, the possibility that we can hardly count on the deployment of those assets has grown, not to mention their permanent deployment in the South. Foreign affairs officials stress that the Korea-U.S. alliance will remain strong under the Trump government, but that is just wishful thinking.
Due to the division of the roles among the superpowers, we are facing a serious dilemma once again to choose between the United States and China and between oceanic forces and continental ones. Despite our existential crisis from the North’s nuclear and missile threats, China is still not serious about checking the North’s provocations, while Russia is only paying lip service to the Korean Peninsula issue. Obama’s interest left the peninsula for the Middle East.
Trump’s Korea policy and his perception towards the alliance hinges on the belief that Seoul must devise its own self-defense measures or purchase U.S. military deterrence with cash. It is thorough rationale to a businessman who accumulated wealth with an animalistic instinct for moneymaking. Therefore, finding a countermeasure to Trumpism must begin with a meticulous study on Trump himself.
Once the Trump administration launches, the argument for South Korea’s own nuclear armament will gain momentum again. But we must remember that U.S. foreign policy is not done by Trump alone. Also, presidential candidate Trump and President Trump are different.
Although he talked about allowing a nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan amid the heat of the campaign, no American president, including Trump, would want Northeast Asia to become an arena of nuclear competition. A nuclear-armed South Korea and Japan will surely trigger Taiwan’s nuclear development and a massive reinforcement of nuclear capabilities by China and Russia.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump are both wild. As one maverick understands another, Kim will fear Trump. Seoul can take the opportunity to work out a modus vivendi with Pyongyang. If the North refuses and dares to conduct a sixth nuclear test and fire long- and mid-range ballistic missiles, the South should revise its security strategy and join the maritime coalition of the United States and Japan. It must put aside the wasteful anti-Japanese sentiment and finalize the military intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo in order to join the advanced intelligence sharing system of the United States and Japan.
China, still obsessed with sinocentrism, cannot be a trustworthy partner. Xi Jinping’s China — which arbitrarily turns blind eyes to its fishing boats’ violence against the Korean Coast Guard and Chinese tourists’ rude behavior in Korea, and which pushes forward its Northeast Project to distort history while only caring about China’s dream — cannot be Korea’s strategic partner, although it could be an economic partner.
If the Trump administration actually allows China and Russia to control the order of the continent and chooses the path of a maritime superpower, we should minimize our participation in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and downsize our efforts in pushing forward the Eurasia Initiative, while joining the bandwagon of the U.S.-Japan maritime cooperation. But unless we first normalize our state affairs, paralyzed by the Choi Soon-sil scandal, we will never be able to respond to these daunting challenges.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 11, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.