Roh’s vs. Moon’s formula
Last month, Washington invoked its long-abandoned safeguard measures to levy up to 30 percent remedial duties on washing machines and solar cells mostly imported from Korea. South Korea was included in the Commerce Department’s recommendation to slap global and country-specific tariffs of a minimum of 53 percent as well as import quotas on steel and aluminum. Korea was the only country among U.S. allies on the list of heavy tariffs.
Moon’s strong rhetoric resembles his former boss and friend, President Roh Moo-hyun. The late liberal president used to say he would speak his mind to Washington. Roh’s proud words appealed to the younger generation of Korea, a nation which, in the past, hardly went against the United States’ wishes. The Blue House explained that the president believes security and trade are two different issues. Roh’s approach was similar. He pursued a free trade agreement with the United States from the early stage of his term. Roh told his trade team to negotiate purely with business in mind, free from domestic political factors. But that did not go the way he wished.
Roh soon discovered the correlation between security and the economy. He adroitly mixed sovereignty with commerce. He dispatched Korean troops twice to Iraq to support U.S. engagement as a duty of an ally. His U.S. counterpart George W. Bush was pleased, but his supporters were not. Roh stretched the security alliance to the trade front. Seoul’s trade team was headed by Kim Hyun-chong, who is now the trade representative of the Moon administration. Kim handled the negotiations in a business-like manner. The bilateral FTA was one of Roh’s biggest achievements. But current aides of Moon have never fully agreed with Roh’s decision.
Today’s White House tenant dislikes the landmark trade deal calling it a “bad” and catastrophic one for U.S. industry and jobs. Roh’s administration, too, was full of activists turned politicians who used to rally against U.S. influence and for more national sovereignty. But Roh did not yield his practical approach. Moon’s aides lack such strategic skills and subtleties.
Trump, an expert in deal-making, negotiates in big and provocative ways in the beginning. There are no allies in trade, he claimed. Despite his harsh rhetoric, though, his actions are more careful. He mixes security and commerce. He pressures Seoul by saying today’s rich Koreans should return the aid they received from Americans during the Korean War. His language connotes an inner complaint. Removing nuclear weapons from North Korea is his top policy priority. His drastically different approach could hardly harmonize with his Korean counterpart’s.
The Korean Navy turned away nuclear submarine USS Texas when it wanted to enter the southern port of Busan for a call and fueling on Jan. 18. The Navy advised the battleship to instead go to the less noticeable port of Jinhae in South Gyeongsang. The rare denial of call by a military ally made the submarine turn to Japan. The move probably would have annoyed the U.S. military brass. Seoul was engrossed with the successful staging of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in Gangwon and didn’t want to provoke North Korea. Trump’s trade offensives toward Korean imports could be related to his disgruntlement with Seoul. He may want to teach Koreans a lesson.
Moon has been capitalizing on the PyeongChang Olympics momentum. His government has hoped to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and find a breakthrough in the deadlock by mediating between Washington and Pyongyang and improving inter-Korean relations. But things did not pan out as it had wished. The Washington Post reported that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was set to meet Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam the day after the Feb. 9 opening ceremony of the Olympics. But the North Korean delegates called off the meeting two hours before it was to take place, according to the report. They may have concluded that they could not gain much from the scheduled meeting with Pence.
North Korea’s presence at the PyeongChang Games was boisterous. The cheerleading squad, the army of beauties on a mission to flaunt North Korean charm, did not awe. Their chants and singing the song “We are one, We are strong” in unison fitted an elementary school playground more than an international sports arena. The young South Koreans are used to fair and global play. They can’t connect with the militant and mechanical cheering styles of North Korea.
Pyongyang’s figurehead Kim Yong-nam is 90. Whenever he was with the “princess,” he offered the center seat to 29-year-old Kim Yo-jong, who stands second to the 34-year-old ruler of the Kim clan. Kim Yong-nam has survived their grandfather and father and knows how to act around the royal family. The scene is both pitiful and scary. The North’s charm offensive did not go as well as hoped. This would have upset the doves at the Blue House. The pitch of one race no longer sells to the younger Korean generation.
Moon seems to be changing his gear in the driver’s seat of inter-Korean affairs. He said that talking of an inter-Korean summit at the current stage was like “looking for hot water around a well.” In normal times, the South Korea-U.S. alliance, trade and the inter-Korean relationship are separate issues, but they can suddenly converge. The lubricant would be North Korea’s denuclearization. Moon must be able to steer with farsightedness and wisdom in search of a single path for national interests.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 22, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.