A sound in the eastSouth Korea has a new president. In the absence of a leader, Northeast Asia has been swept up in an intense power game among global powers, which is reminiscent of the lead-up to the Japanese invasions of Korea in the 16th century, the Yalta and Potsdam conferences and armistice negotiations when Korea was utterly neglected in decisions over the fate of the peninsula. The times call for shrewd strategy and statesmanship.
China has been merciless in retaliating against South Korean companies for their government’s decision to allow the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. U.S. President Donald Trump bombed an air base in Syria with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles and landed the mother of bombs on an ISIS base in Afghanistan to send a powerful message to Pyongyang. While showing off what Washington can potentially do with its advanced arms, Trump then called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a “pretty smart cookie” with whom he claimed he would be “honored” to meet given the right circumstances.
It is hard to understand Trump’s real intentions. His so-called “maximum pressure and engagement” policy could aim at freezing the North Korean nuclear program and intercontinental missile technology — capable of threatening the U.S. mainland — and also normalize ties with Pyongyang and strike a peace treaty to resolve the North Korean threat once and for all.
A good deal-maker usually bundles tough issues into one ultimatum to pressure the other party. Unlike Seoul, which negotiates one issue at a time, Washington may attempt to tackle several issues at the same time. During his summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Trump squeezed in security, economic and trade agendas. He traded the suspension of a preemptive strike on North Korea, toleration for China’s large trade surplus with the U.S, its labeling as a currency manipulator and a secondary boycott on Chinese enterprises trading with North Korean companies for China’s unprecedented pressure on Pyongyang, including a freeze in oil supplies to the North.
We can imagine the embarrassments of White House officials when our National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin naively argued against Beijing’s recommendation of a peace treaty with Pyongyang to denuclearize North Korea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed tripartite talks among Pyongyang, Beijing and Washington to negotiate the matter by leaving out Seoul, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded positively.
Kim Jong-un, who is three years younger than Trump’s son-in-law, has flaunted what were believed to be the latest ICBMs during a military parade marking the birthday of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. And yet he did not test the missiles. Pyongyang launched short-range missiles knowing that Washington could detect them in advance through radar, as a kind of face-saving gesture for both states. It nevertheless tested short-range missiles with the clever intention of questioning the logic of the Thaad deployment, escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing and worsening ties between Seoul and Beijing to renew Beijing’s support and heighten its chances for direct talks with Washington.
Such shrewdness may have earned the “smart cookie” acknowledgement from Trump and drawn interest from the U.S. president. At the same time, Trump became harsh towards Seoul, demanding it pay $1 billion for the operation of the Thaad battery and revisit the hard-won free trade agreement between the two countries. He even was so uncivil as to tell a U.S. media outlet that Korea historically was a part of China. From his acts and remarks so far, Trump and his aides may be looking down on South Korea as helpless in dealing with North Korea, just as Theodore Roosevelt cold-shouldered Joseon when it came under Japanese control.
The new South Korean president must meet Trump ahead of the July 7 G-20 summit talks in Hamburg to break out of our diplomatic isolation since the ouster of President Park Geun-hye. The new president can hardly have a deep conversation with Trump, who would be courted by others at the international forum. So he must be fully prepared for bilateral talks with Trump. He must remember Trump is an avid golf player and respects war veterans.
Before Xi went to Washington, China approved a trove of 38 trademarks of Trump, and state-backed Anbang Insurance Group offered to purchase a $400 million stake in a New York real estate company owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in his second meeting with Trump, pledged a $150 billion investment and 700,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next decade. The two played a round of golf at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, and Trump happily used a $3,755 gold driver he received as a gift from Abe. The Korean leader must study Trump to decide what to give — and what to get.
We need to apply the ancient Chinese strategy of making a sound in the east and striking in the west to protect our national interests. We may not have to go into a renegotiation of the FTA with the U.S. if we can earn Trump’s respect on another front. Trump’s claiming Korea owes the U.S. for the Thaad battery has helped raise public awareness that the Korea-U.S. alliance is not a permanent guarantee of anything.
Our weakness is well-defined by the book “Strategic Vision” by Zbigniew Brezinski. We are overly predictable. The people are frustrated at a lack of strategy from our leaders. We want to see smart tactics and statesmanship. Albert Einstein famously said that insanity is about doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. If it wants different results, the incoming administration must not do the same thing over and over again.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 9, Page 27
*The author, a former minister of trade and the UN ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, is a member of the WTO Appellate Body and professor of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.