A hearty handshakeThe June 29-30 summit between the leaders of South Korea and the United States will be the first meeting between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump. It could be one of the most closely watched meetings as the two men with very different backgrounds and values come together to meet at a time when North Korea is close to mastering its nuclear and missile arms program.
The liberal Korean president faces the most unpredictable and controversial White House host since the hot-tempered seventh U.S. President Andrew Jackson, who was involved in 13 duels of honor. Moon will be traveling to Washington with a heavy heart and agenda packed with thorny issues related to peace and the future of the Korean Peninsula. Watchers from home only hope that nothing disastrous happens.
Trump is a born businessman. He had a knack of discovering property jewels and making money by betting on their future value. The billionaire real estate magnate boasts that he likes “thinking big.” The purchase of the aged Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street in Manhattan, New York, from the bankrupt Penn Central Transportation Company in the 1970s and redesiging it into a luxury Grand Hyatt was Trump’s first landmark real estate achievement.
His father tried to talk him out of it, claiming that buying the hotel was like buying a ticket to the Titanic, which was bound to sink. But the younger Trump had eyes on the thousands of people coming out of Grand Central Terminal just next to the hotel every day. Trump always said you should go with your gut, and his gut proved right. The deficit-ridden hotel turned into a landmark of the Big Apple, generating a gross operating profit of $30 million a year.
Trump bought the abandoned riverside rail yards and refurbished the area with 16 luxury apartment towers. He purchased a beachside golf course and residential development site in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Palos Verdes, California in 2002 for $27 million from the previous owners who went bankrupt after the 18th hole and half of its fairway slid into the ocean. He vowed to turn the property into the best golf course in the state — even better than the famed Pebble Beach — and when he reopened the Trump National Golf Club in 2006, he claimed that the property was worth $264 million.
Trump used to say that he follows what his gut and a handshake tells him. He decided to appear on the reality show “The Apprentice” after an hour-long meeting with its producer Mark Burnett. When his agent tried to talk him out of it, arguing that business shows never work on TV, Trump simply answered that he had already shaken hands with Burnett.
President Moon must pitch South Korean values to stimulate Trump’s gut-instinct decision-making. South Korea remains the U.S.’s best success story out of all of the countries it had been in military engagement with. It makes a perfect example of the democracy and free market the U.S. has been trying to sell across the globe.
At the same time, South Korea has a strategic value as leverage against the socialist front of North Korea, Russia and China. Some historians believe that the speech by U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson in January 1950 that left out the Korean Peninsula as part of the all-important “defense perimeter” of the U.S. gave the green light to the Soviet and North Korean leaders — Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung — to invade the South. South Korea remains more strategically valuable than any country around Eurasia.
The United States is at sharp conflict with China claiming sovereignty of the territories along the East and South China Sea. Pyeongtaek, southwest of Seoul, is home to one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world. Fissures in the defense and peace in South Korea would give Japan an excuse to build up nuclear arms, jeopardizing the U.S.-led nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If the NPT that makes up the two primary pillars of global order, along with the World Trade Organization, shakes, Trump’s America First slogan would become a joke.
A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey in late 2016 showed that six out of ten (64 percent) Americans support the idea of U.S. troops defending South Korea. Americans’ favoring good relations with South Korea also reached all-time high. They stay proud of having saved South Korea from the communist attack through the deaths of more than 36,000 of their men and women in the Korean War.
South Korea has been America’s most successful overseas investment, and Americans believe they have to ensure South Korea stays a symbol of peace and prosperity just as Trump Tower is a landmark to the U.S. president for his personal wealth and success.
The free trade agreement is as symbolically important for bilateral alliance as the mutual defense pact. South Korea’s prosperity poses as the best example of U.S. marketing of its free economy model. Seoul has offered to buy 20 trillion won ($17.5 billion) worth of U.S. shale gas over the next 20 years. It has been the U.S.’ biggest weapons client, purchasing 36 trillion won worth of arms over the last decade. As an ally, South Korea willingly sent troops to U.S. military engagements in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moon will find it easy to appeal to Trump if he can successfully pitch the immense value of South Korea. After candid discussions on issues ranging from smooth deployment of the missile shield, North Korea’s nuclear threat and Beijing’s role to the Korea-U.S. FTA, we hope the two leaders will part with hearty handshakes after their first summit.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 28, Page 31
*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.