Staying calmOn a recent trip to Seoul, I found myself providing the following simple advice to my Korean colleagues: Ignore the President of the United States. It was embarrassing to feel like I was colluding against my own government. But the advice is sound. The Moon Jae-in administration — and the Korean public — needs to look past Trump’s impulsive meandering, stand on principle, and stay calm.
Let me provide some concrete examples of why listening to the American president only leads to agitation, underlining that they could be amplified many times over. In a tweet that was widely criticized by the foreign policy community in the U.S. — and by both Republicans and Democrats — Trump suggested that the Moon administration was engaged in “appeasement” of the North. The South Korean opposition quickly seized on the comments as proof that the Moon administration’s policy on the North was failing.
In fact, the Moon administration came to office — as any democratically elected president should — considering an array of options. These included reopening channels to the North that were lost during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye years, recognizing full well that these proposals would depend on how Pyongyang responded.
The regime was unresponsive, even dismissive. But that failure of imagination can hardly be pinned on South Korean policy. As Abba Eban said of the Palestinians, North Korea never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
President Moon’s policy subsequently shifted, and it is clear that he and his supporters are disheartened by the fact. In his Berlin speech, President Moon emphasized the centrality of the nuclear issue, and relented on deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield. But he maintained two sound proposals. The first is that the militaries of the two countries should meet to avoid inadvertent escalation. The second was that the North should reconsider its shameful policy with respect to family reunions.
This is appeasement?
Another example is the confusion Donald Trump has generated with respect to negotiations with the North. In another tweet, he said “the time for talking has passed.”
It took less than 24 hours for his own Secretary of Defense to contradict him. The tweet also directly contradicted a consensus that had emerged between the United States and China. That consensus includes a recognition that pressure will have to be brought to bear on North Korea through additional sanctions.
Yet it also holds that all parties should leave open the off-ramp of negotiations, something President Moon has been saying since his election campaign.
In short, the president of the United States is taking positions that directly contradict tacit understandings with Beijing, policy articulated by his own Secretary of State and the sentiments of his Secretary of Defense. Why should the Moon administration concur?
Yet another example is the confusion about the administration’s position on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (Korus) . Protectionist White House staff were almost certainly behind the leak that the president was seriously considering withdrawing from the Korus. It took less than 48 hours for the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House committees in charge of trade policy to contradict the administration.
But the problem is worse. The administration has spread what can only be called lies about the agreement, chief among them that it is responsible for a widening trade deficit between the two countries. Almost exactly the opposite is the case. Korean imports fell as the economy slowed over the last several years. Imports from all of Korea’s trade partners necessarily fell as a result, but those from the United States fell substantially less. The reason includes the free trade agreement.
With respect to the Nafta, the policy community at least has an outline of the administration’s negotiating position. The United States has released nothing on what it is trying to achieve with respect to the Korus beyond a reduction of the deficit. Until there is sober consideration of what the agreement has and hasn’t achieved, why should Seoul jump to make concessions?
A final example concerns the current upsurge of interest in redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. To be sure, this sentiment can be traced largely to Kim Jong-un’s behavior. But Trump’s Twitter account has not helped, in part because of growing concerns that the United States is an untrustworthy ally.
In fact, the consensus on the value of the alliance in the United States is broad and deep, restated by his own vice president and cabinet on trips to the region. The president is the outlier.
Moreover, tactical nuclear weapons would make little political sense if we are trying to get the North to denuclearize. Nor would they serve any military purpose. The United States already has long-range nuclear strike capability if needed, and the conventional deterrent is in any case more than adequate to deter the North. In fact, putting tactical nuclear weapons on the ground in South Korea might even tempt Kim Jong-un to go after them. The nuclear weapons frenzy represents a solution to a problem that does not exist.
Trump’s main political talent is getting under your skin. But chasing his shape-shifting policy priorities is like chasing ghosts. The rapid deflation in presidential credibility marks a sad day for the United States But the Moon administration and Korean public should not fall victim. Stay calm.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego.