Strategic stumblePresident Donald Trump’s trip to Asia went reasonably well for Korea. His rhetoric on North Korea changed for the better during the first part of his trip. His National Assembly speech focused on human rights and deterrence of the North, but did not feature previous threats of a preventive U.S. attack should diplomacy with the North fail. He criticized multilateral trade agreements, particularly in his Da Nang speech at APEC, but he did not threaten to withdraw from the Korea-U.S. trade pact, as he has in the past.
His visit to the demilitarized zone was cancelled due to weather, but it was planned in a way that would not create consternation or anxiety in the South. Moon Jae-in celebrated the one-year anniversary of Trump’s electoral victory, learning from other leaders how flattery works with the current occupant of the White House. The American president seemed to have a good time. Of all the stops in Trump’s long trip, Korea seemed the most uncertain in advance and yet turned out fine.
But another less reassuring narrative quietly developed over the same two-week period with respect to Korea’s strategic trajectory. This narrative began with the Korean Foreign Ministry successfully negotiating the terms for China to cease its embargo of Lotte and other Korean firms because of the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield. At first, this appeared to be a significant diplomatic achievement for Seoul. According to the Korean government, no conditions were set for China to reduce its economic coercion. Yet the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the Korean side had agreed to three conditions: (1) no further Thaad deployments; (2) no U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance; and (3) no Korean participation in a U.S. regional missile defense system.
The Korean side’s subsequent hesitation to deny the Chinese claim raised concerns in Washington. The official statement from the Korean Foreign Ministry was terse, noting that aside from what was announced publicly, “there was by no means any promise or assurance offered to China in any form whatsoever.” At first, that seemed reassuring to Washington, but then in official U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral defense talks scheduled during Trump’s visit to Asia, the Korean side withdrew from previous agreements to conduct trilateral air force exercises. Suspicion deepened that perhaps Seoul had offered some verbal assurances to the Chinese side along the lines claimed by Beijing. This is the prevailing view among experts in Washington, Tokyo and — I am certain — in Beijing.
No matter what the actual substance of the China-ROK agreement, this is a dangerous narrative for Korea for four reasons.
First, it appears to confirm China’s belief that embargos and economic pressure work. In an effort to save Beijing’s face by not overtly contradicting Chinese allegations that there were conditions for ending the embargo, Seoul has made it easier for hardliners in Beijing to propose similar coercion in the future.
Second, by appearing to rule out further strengthening of U.S.-South Korea-Japan defense cooperation, Seoul has undercut a central tool in the U.S. strategy to keep more pressure on North Korea and has simultaneously reduced the incentives for Beijing to pressure Pyongyang.
Third, at a time when Trump and Moon were beginning to move closer together on North Korea policy — or at least diverge less — there is new doubt about Seoul’s trustworthiness.
Finally, at a time when Abe was urging Trump to build closer ties to Moon, Tokyo is now going to be more hesitant to stand up for Korea in its own consultations with Washington.
The U.S. side is partly to blame. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept announced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and highlighted in Manila with a U.S.-Japan-Australia-India quadrilateral consultation puts South Korea in a somewhat less certain position. There is merit in the U.S. concept, but it was derived from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and has its roots in American strategic tradition going back to Alfred Thayer Mahan and George Kennan, both of whom did not think the United States had strategic interests in Korea.
This historical hiccup would not have mattered, except for the difficulties in U.S.-South Korea relations caused by the White House attacks on the FTA and the lavish attention put on Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Korea is a peninsula, and thus has both maritime and continental strategic outlooks. Korea should have been an explicit component of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, but I have found that Korean scholars and officials have more questions about the concept than praise.
At the end of the day, I believe the fundamentals of the U.S.-South Korea alliance are very solid, whether measured in public opinion polls, shared values, deep economic investment, or the incredible cooperation between U.S. and South Korean forces. I also suspect that Moon is desperately trying to balance a range of difficult tensions — between the hard left and centrists elements in his political party; between the government and the opposition; between Japan and China; and between the United States and China.
The problem is that when Korea focuses on maintaining just the right balance among the major powers, it only invites greater rivalry among those powers for strategic influence on the peninsula. History teaches that the reality of Korean foreign policy strategy is often not as important as how the major powers around Korea perceive that strategy. The major powers might be getting the wrong lessons from the past two weeks.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.