Trump’s imponderablesThe victory of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. presidential election add even more worries for a Korea swamped with domestic troubles. The former real estate mogul, elected after an unprecedentedly rough horse race, could bring about bigger changes than the last Republican president, George W. Bush. We are in serious need of some creative and smart strategies. But what we are seeing are the usual ritual formalities. A delegation was hastily formed and sent to Washington. It is indeed an urgent need to build connection with the incoming administration, but nothing will come of a mere photo-op with the transition team — if our team even gets that. American presidential transition teams have immediate and serious work to do as they prepare to take power. They do not easily meet with foreign envoys.
The names of the Trump transition team members are unfamiliar to Seoul. It is better to act systematically and calmly when addressing an unknown counterpart. It would be wiser to explore the counterpart’s position in discreet meetings to draw a rough outline for the next move. By repeating that process, we would be able to come up with more suitable response plans.
What Seoul needs to do first is to understand the U.S. president-elect. Trump defied the norms of mainstream politics with scandalous behavior and controversial promises. He deepened the national divide to the extent of losing support of the leaders of his own party. He won through the electoral college vote, but lost the popular vote. His presidency is up against strong doubts and critics. He faces protests of his distinctively rightist platform from supporters of his opponent Hillary Clinton. He also will have to mend fences with the mainstream of the Republican Party that dominates the Congress. He could face resistance from congressional leaders. The former reality TV show star also is detested by the mainstreams of business, society and the media. Trump must somehow find common ground to realize his outlandish and bold campaign platforms against such political odds. His campaign promises defy longstanding traditions in public medical care, immigration and racial issues, the environment, security, and trade commitments. None of them will be easy. But at the same time, he would lose public confidence if he backtracks on them. He could be entirely domestically-oriented in the early stage of his administration.
A U.S. president engrossed in domestic issues could have ramifications on the global front. The world’s most powerful leader would be less involved in international affairs. His hostile foreign policy would come under constraints from conservative Republicans and likely be toned down by his bureaucratic advisers.
On the foreign front, Trump is expected to reassure commitments to longstanding alliances. He will keep true to his slogan of putting U.S. interests first by strengthening military power while reducing engagements abroad. He would be less imposing of U.S. values like democracy and human rights and may improve U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes. Protectionism is likely to strengthen on the trade front.
In diplomatic terms, Washington and Beijing could get along better. But on the economic front, the two could clash over trade, foreign exchange, intellectual property rights and cyber business. Worse, Washington could become cozier with Moscow.
The upside is that improved ties among Washington, Beijing and Moscow could strengthen the united front on the North Korean nuclear threat. Washington will likely continue to call for a more aggressive role by Beijing, and the dialogue option could resurface. If Washington becomes less involved and Beijing vice versa, it would become trickier for Seoul to maintain its balancing act. The U.S. can also demand South Korea pay more of the cost of U.S. forces in Korea. Seoul also will have to brace for renegotiations on U.S. armed forces in Korea, deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Seoul must keep to a few principles.
First, it needs to closely watch policy trends in Washington. Authorities must be cool-headed and meticulous in such unprecedentedly volatile times. They must be objective and careful to avoid the temptation of reading things in their favor. They should be extra careful about what they say to the press. The times are too urgent to allow bureaucratic complacency.
Second, Seoul needs to be pragmatic and flexible on foreign policy after studying the U.S. policies and responses from China, Russia and North Korea. From what we know so far, Washington won’t likely veer greatly away from its current position of keeping sanctions and pressure on North Korea as a solution to the nuclear program. Still we must be responsive to any deviance.
Third, Seoul must come up with a comprehensive defense strategy against the repercussions of U.S. trade protectionism. The foreign affairs and commerce team must work together to minimize damage on our trade-reliant economy.
Lastly, Korea should broaden its diplomatic campaign to include the entire spectrum of Republicans, Democrats and business community, given Trump’s vulnerable position. Such comprehensive networking could help our side on trade and security talks. Trump’s presidency could be a tipping point for regional geopolitics and is likely to bring about sweeping changes on the economic and security fronts. Yet our leadership in Korea is in limbo. We just hope there are committed bureaucrats endeavoring to fight for national interests amidst the political chaos.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 18, Page 29
*The author, a former South Korean representative to the six-party talks, is a guest politics professor at Seoul National University.