Devil in the detailsGiven how rude and arrogant U.S. President Donald Trump can be, the first summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in went surprisingly well. Trump reportedly refused to shake hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and hung up during a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The real estate mogul-turned-president, who communicates through gestures, tapped Moon on the shoulder as he shook hands with him for the first time, suggesting amicability.
Trump is someone who cannot be underestimated. He ordered an air strike on Syria while entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping over dinner at his private Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. He showed his muscle to Beijing while hosting the Korean president by slapping sanctions on Chinese lender Dangdong Bank for suspected financial dealings with Pyongyang and endorsing arms exports to Taiwan. Moon managed to make Trump agree on the need for dialogue as much as pressure and set the stage for Seoul taking the initiative in affairs related to North Korea.
But the devil is in the details. Since an outline has been laid out between the allies, the two governments should come up with specific strategies and plans for action. Our policymakers must accurately read what the global powers with interests in the Korean Peninsula have in mind.
Seoul must understand why Washington wants to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), refrains from endorsing Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — which stipulates that other allies must come to the aid of an ally under attack — and desires to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. South Korea must analyze the moves and prepare countermeasures in the case of disagreement with Washington on the North Korean nuclear issue, while bracing for a renegotiation of the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) and other issues that could affect the Korean Peninsula, including the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system.
To understand Trump’s world view, his books “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” and “The Art of the Deal” should be read. He claims in “Great Again” that the U.S. lost its mighty reputation after its free market system wrecked manufacturing industries and the country began to cut defense spending. His solution is simple — fix the problems by preventing further free trade treaties and having countries that became wealthy by selling things to Americans share some bills. He also believes in increasing defense spending to strengthen America’s hard power.
Based on such beliefs, Trump exited from the TPP and began renegotiations on the North America Free Trade Agreement. He tweeted about a renegotiation of the FTA with South Korea a day before he met Moon. He pressured Samsung Electronics to pledge new investment in the U.S. In a briefing after the summit, he said the two countries are “negotiating a trade deal right now” and claimed the deal would be made “equitable” for both parties.
Trump accused South Korea, Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia of becoming rich by “free-riding” off of the U.S. and wants them to pay more of the cost of beefing up U.S. military power. When Merkel refused, Trump declined to reaffirm commitment to NATO’s Article 5. Saudi Arabia bought $100 billion worth of U.S. arms. Seoul will be asked to pay up next.
When North Korea fired ballistic missiles, the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to Japan. Trump reportedly was furious with his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, for assuring South Korea that the U.S. would be paying for the installation of the Thaad battery. Trump had said in an interview that he told Seoul that “it would be appropriate” for them to pay for the $1 billion system.
To this businessman-turned-president, the historical or geopolitical value of an alliance with South Korea is less important than other issues on his plate. Pyongyang is expected to increase its provocations by claiming that a tougher U.S. military posture further justifies its nuclear and missile programs, a move that would only aggravate our burden and increase our peril.
We must prepare counteractions to wean the country off an over-reliance on global powers during talks on increasing our contribution to the cost of maintaining U.S. troops in Korea. Authorities should also gradually prepare the nation for the possibility of a collapse in the FTA with the U.S. by assuring that imports of produce are replaceable with imports from Canada, the European Union, and Australia.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 4, Page 31
*The author, a former minister of trade and the UN ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, is professor of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.