A Moon-Trump crash is unlikelyIt is a risky business trying to predict presidential elections. Just ask Hillary Clinton. Still, the polls are suggesting a Moon Jae-in victory on May 9 and many observers in Washington are growing worried about a damaging collision between what they see as a hardline Trump administration and a left-wing government under Moon. Having worked in the White House during the Roh-Bush years, I find myself somewhat more optimistic about this scenario than many of my colleagues in think tanks and government. It would be hard to have a greater ideological and political division than existed between Jimmy Carter and Park Chung Hee, for example. And it is worth remembering that despite the big ideological and rhetorical gap between George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun, the two presidents cooperated successfully on some of the most consequential advances in the history of U.S.-ROK relations, including the completion of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (Korus), the relocation of U.S. bases to Pyeongtaek and the largest Korean military deployment abroad with U.S. forces since the Vietnam War.
This historical context is important, given how bad the U.S. President’s message has been on U.S.-Korea relations over the past week. Korean readers need no reminding that Donald Trump referenced Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “historical” lesson that Korea was once part of China, or that he called the leaders of Japan and China but not the Republic of Korea to coordinate on the North Korea nuclear problem or, indeed, that he demanded Korea pay $1 billion for Thaad, though this was later retracted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, or that he called Korus the worst agreement ever.
With such a barrage the week before Korea’s presidential election, observers must wonder whether the United States has a strategy to elect an anti-American candidate or whether perhaps Trump has a particular dislike for Korea.
Neither is the case.
Each of the shots fired had little to do with Korea itself, though it must be acknowledged that is itself a problem. Nevertheless, Trump’s reference to Xi’s history lesson on the Korean Peninsula reflected a desire to demonstrate the establishment of a trusting relationship with the leader of China rather than some geopolitical judgement about Korean history itself.
His attack on Korus flows directly from the fact that the White House abandoned its plan to withdraw from Nafta and was searching for another scapegoat to demonstrate to hardcore Trump supporters that he is still tough on trade issues. Finally, the phone calls to Japan and China to coordinate the North Korea problem reflected a former businessman’s instinct to reach out to the counterparts he knows — something common in the real estate business but unwise in diplomacy.
Indeed, many of these blows might have been avoided if Trump knew his counterpart in Seoul. That will change after May 9. But then one has to wonder whether Moon, should he win, will send the right message back to Washington and find a successful way to build a personal relationship with Trump the way Britain’s Theresa May or Japan’s Shinzo Abe have.
At first blush, things look worrisome in that regard. Moon has criticized the rapid deployment of Thaad, promised to reopen the agreement with Japan on comfort women and promised a more accommodating approach to North Korea at a time when not only the United States, but most of the democratic world, is putting more pressure on Pyongyang.
Yet it should also be noted that Moon has left himself wiggle room. He has not boxed himself in with unequivocal promises like Trump did during his election campaign. During my time in the White House, I observed Moon, who was much more pragmatic as Roh’s chief-of-staff than he was ideological. Moon would remember, for example, that Roh’s attacks on the United States during the 2002 campaign caused Moody’s to downgrade Korea’s sovereign debt rating because of fears that the Roh administration might weaken one of the most important pillars of stability and confidence in the Korean market — the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Today, Korean views of the United States are quite positive, while polls show that more Americans than ever say the United States should defend Korea if it is attacked. Trump did not come to power on any wave of popular American or Congressional sentiment against Korea. The situation was quite the opposite: Congress and the American people understand and appreciate the U.S.-ROK alliance more than ever.
There is no doubt that the new Korean government will have some significant differences with the current U.S. administration. There will be friction and some uncertainty. North Korea will try to exploit any divisions. But precedents and the structure of the U.S.-ROK relationship today suggest that there need not be pre-mourning for the U.S.-ROK alliance. We shall see what happens, but I would not rule out a scenario in which the relationship actually grows closer in the coming years, despite the jarring disconnect between Seoul and Washington right now.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.