Tread with cautionKorean voters on Tuesday elected liberal candidate Moon Jae-in as their next president in the midst of growing uncertainty about the South Korea-U.S. alliance’s future. He handily defeated his two closest rivals, conservative Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, with 41 percent of the vote. Although the result was expected, given the conservatives’ collapse after Park Geun-hye was removed from office, it appears pundits and think tanks in the United States are not too happy about Moon’s victory.
Indeed, when I was in Washington a month ago, I happened to know that Korea experts there were very much concerned about the likely election of a progressive in the wake of Park’s impeachment. In a sense, they appeared more uncomfortable with the rise of a liberal South Korean government than I had expected, as if they had already forgotten the pacts signed between Seoul and Washington, including the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953.
In short, these Korea watchers were not sure if Moon would play a cooperative role with the Trump administration in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threats. They thought of Moon as the epitome of Roh Moo-hyun, the liberal president whose thorny remarks against the United States astonished Americans. Moon served as Roh’s last chief of staff.
Not surprisingly, many conservative critics at home, fearful of Moon’s effect on the alliance, are raising profound concerns about his government following in Roh’s footsteps and improving ties with North Korea without fully consulting the United States beforehand. These are ideologically bloated concerns. In reality, the rising uncertainty on the peninsula does not allow South Korea to unilaterally develop relations with North Korea. Moon, too, promised not to open talks with the North unilaterally and expressed his strong intention to visit Washington first before going to Pyongyang. He also said in a speech at the National Assembly a day after his election that he would strengthen the alliance more than ever. Will South Korea then remain in step with Trump for long?
My hunch is that the Trump administration will test South Korea’s diplomatic maturity. There is no strong sign that the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea will be affected, but Trump has already threatened to terminate the free trade agreement that Seoul and Washington signed in 2011. He has also angered South Koreans by demanding they pay for a missile defense system that is being installed on Korean soil by the U.S. military. For now, the picture is not so rosy.
Seoul sees Trump’s feisty talk as pressure against an important ally in Northeast Asia. Washington sees his remarks as another part of Trump’s “America First” message. It is anybody’s guess whether Trump’s plans will become a brake on the partnership. The outcome may well have to wait until Moon meets with Trump in Washington around July.
Conservative foreign policy analysts are openly worried that the left-of-center government will fight for a more “balanced” alliance with the United States while “upgrading” a strategic cooperative relationship with China. In their eyes, Moon, eager to ride the wave of populism, will not cooperate with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump.
Trump, as it’s often said, is a tough negotiator with the ability to make big, difficult deals because he is gunning for a deal done on his terms. In foreign policy circles here, there are some pundits who are afraid that Moon might go too far in negotiating high-stakes deals in the future, such as the missile defense system and the free trade agreement. This is an unnecessary fear. There is no way South Korea can fully please the Trump administration.
Let’s face it, negotiation process will be hard either because of perceived difference in interests or lack of consensus. The question isn’t whether the alliance can be maintained but whether it is mutually beneficial. Today in South Korea-U.S. relations as well as in South-North, the domestic situation is very important. The most obvious explanation is that South Korea still remains ideologically divided.
The share of votes that went to rivals Hong and Ahn were 24.0 percent and 21.4 percent, respectively, indicating the challenges that Moon faces in building a support base for his policies on North Korea and defense. Conflict is everywhere, but to be the president of a divided nation means facing the inescapable dilemma between alliance and self-reliance.
In truth, many parts of the traditional alliance between Seoul and Washington are like “the project that takes much time to bear fruit, or the story that must stay secret until some day in the future.” Ironically, it was during the progressive Roh presidency that South Korea successfully wrapped up its free trade deal with the United States and dispatched its own troops to fight alongside the U.S. military in Iraq.
Moon knows that no economic and security interest is secured by “bashing America” despite extremists’ opportunistic use of anti-American rhetoric. The new president, it seems, refuses to leave this anti-Americanism in the hands of the far left or far right. Instead, he may feel the need to expand the ideological middle ground.
There is a Korean saying that goes, “Crossing the river by touching the stones,” which is to say that Seoul needs to approach thorny issues with prudent approaches, rather than trying to enter uncharted waters. It is time to discuss in earnest how to soften hot-button issues for citizens and businesses. It is time to explore how to deepen South Korea’s alliance with the United States to secure peace and stability on the peninsula.
*The author is vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in South Korea.