Peninsula braces for altered policies of TrumpU.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump is scheduled to be inaugurated on Friday, ushering in plenty of uncertainties for both South and North Korea, as the real estate mogul does not seem to be backing down on controversial campaign pledges, including reevaluating relations with allies.
Key issues that could arise from the Trump administration include a possible request for Seoul to pay more to maintain U.S. troops in Korea, a renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) and a possible review of the bilateral alliance, including the withdrawal of troops.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat will continue to remain a serious task for the new Trump administration to tackle, an issue that would continue to require close cooperation between Seoul and Washington.
In an interview with The Times of London and Germany’s Bild Sunday, Trump again described NATO as “obsolete” and questioned the burden shared by U.S. allies, which include Korea.
“Countries aren’t paying their fair share,” he said, “so we’re supposed to protect countries but a lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States.”
Trump made alarming remarks for Korea during the presidential campaign, calling for Seoul to pay significantly more for the cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops stationed here, ignoring the fact that Korea already pays around half. He threatened to withdraw American troops if Korea does not pay more for defense, questioned if the U.S. nuclear umbrella will continue to extend to this region and called for the renegotiation of trade deals.
Observers here calculated that his rhetoric was for campaign purposes and that once he took office, his actual policies could be softened.
However, Trump’s pick for secretary of state has enforced the idea that allies need to be held “accountable” to commitments.
“We must hold our allies accountable to commitments they make,” said former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, the incoming U.S. secretary of state, said during his Senate confirmation hearing last week. “We cannot look the other way at allies who do not meet their obligations.”
But Tillerson said he does not agree that South Korea and Japan should develop nuclear armaments to defend themselves from North Korea’s growing threats, despite Trump’s earlier claims.
Tillerson also came down hard on China’s behavior in the South China Sea while pushing for Beijing to exert more control over North Korea.
“If China is not going to comply with sanctions, it is appropriate for us to compel them to comply,” he said, remarks welcomed by the South Korean government as being consistent with the current U.S. administration’s policy toward Pyongyang.
Retired Gen. James Mattis, the incoming secretary of defense, has emphasized the importance of treaty obligations and the need to stand by U.S. allies and partners in his confirmation hearing last week, defending the presence of American troops in allied countries such as Korea and Japan.
He also added that Washington expects “allies and partners to uphold their obligations as well.”
Nonetheless, Seoul needs to brace for a Trump administration that may demand that Korea take on a greater share of costs to maintain U.S. troops here, pressure for the renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. FTA, and review the bilateral alliance treaty.
Washington analysts point out that the cost-sharing may be the main issue.
Gregg Brazinsky, a professor at George Washington University who specializes on U.S. and East Asian relations, pointed out that all three points of concern can happen. However, should Trump first come down hard on China and North Korea, he would have to cooperate more earnestly with South Korea and Japan, and “some sort of compromise may be reached.”
Northeast Asia expert Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, also pointed out that the renegotiation of cost-sharing may “become a priority” for Korea and the United States.
While it is unclear what sort of diplomacy Tillerson, who does not have experience in government, will wield toward Seoul, John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies conjectured that the new secretary of state may prove to be a “grand friend” for Korea. Tillerson has strong ties with the Washington-based think tank, having served as a member of the CSIS board of trustees for over a decade.
In terms of North Korea, Pyongyang has vowed to stick to its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Leader Kim Jong-un said in a New Year’s address that his country has entered the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, though Trump thinks that this “won’t happen,” according to his tweet in response to the address.
But the president-elect’s picks for his cabinet, including Tillerson, Mattis and Mike Pompeo, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, have all emphasized that they take Pyongyang’s provocations seriously during their hearings. It appears they will continue to tighten sanctions while pressuring Beijing to play a bigger role in reining in Pyongyang. The White House also said that the Obama administration’s national security council and Trump’s national security team are engaged in discussing a range of issues, including on North Korea, suggesting continuity between the two governments on this issue.
At a time of such an uncertain transition, Korea lacks leadership, especially in foreign affairs, while other world leaders reach out to the incoming Trump administration.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting president, on Tuesday emphasized enhancing ties with the United States in a cabinet meeting in Seoul ahead of the upcoming change in administration in Washington.
Hwang convened a cabinet meeting Tuesday during which he ordered the ministers to “do the best to closely communicate with the new U.S. administration on military, diplomatic and economic issues in order to further develop the two countries cooperative relations to be more reciprocal.”
He added, “The Korea-U.S. alliance should not sway at all and needs to be maintained and bolstered as it accounts for a great proportion of the maintenance of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.”
Hwang also said to “preemptively prepare for any issues that may come up with the inauguration of the Trump administration,” including on trade, “so that plenty of mutual negotiations can be held.”
BY KIM HYUN-KI, SARAH KIM [email@example.com]