Candidate Trump’s views on Korea rattled Seoul and encouraged Pyongyang. But what will President Trump actually do? Aidan Foster-Carter forecasts choppy peninsular waters.
As 2017 begins, a worried world is wondering what to expect of President Trump, and which of his often wayward words might become actual American policy during the next four years. In few capitals is the anxiety greater than Seoul.
With North Korea a constant threat since the war of the 1950s, now with nuclear weapons, the alliance between the US and South Korea has always been tight, though not always smooth. Trump is by no means the first shock from across the Pacific.
After 1969, Richard Nixon not only wound down US forces in Vietnam and came to a startling rapprochement with Mao Zedong in China, North Korea’s principal ally, he withdrew 20,000 US troops from South Korea. These radical developments prompted the two Koreas, each mistrustful of their respective big brothers, to hold direct talks for the first time – although 45 years later this fitful dialogue has yet to yield lasting fruit. Currently inter-Korean relations are worse than ever.
Later Jimmy Carter sought to pull out all US forces from the South, only to be dissuaded by his staff, and 28,500 remain. Since then no subsequent leader on either side has rocked the alliance boat so sharply – until now.
Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra has two main targets: ‘unfair’ free trade agreements, and allies who fail to pay their way. South Korea is in both lines of fire. On the stump Trump specifically and repeatedly attacked the KorUS trade deal, in effect since 2012, as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘job-killing’, especially for the US auto industry, which opposed the accord. KorUS has already been renegotiated once: first signed in 2007, a revised version was approved in 2011.
Will Trump really tear up KorUS? Although one of his first acts in office was to scrap the Pacific trade deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, some in Seoul see grounds for hope. He wants to revise the NAFTA trade deal with Canada and Mexico, but he may learn the hard way that picking fights with friends is neither sensible nor easy.
Yet South Korea is worried. The US could designate it as a currency manipulator, though China is Trump’s first likely target. More broadly, any outbreak of trade wars will harm an economy still dependent on exports, but sluggish: GDP is forecast to grow by a mere 2.6 per cent this year. One likely Trump grumble is the South’s big bilateral trade surplus, $23.3 billion in 2016. To ease this, there is talk of Seoul buying more US shale gas.
Seoul is also in the sights of Trump’s second barrel: freeloading allies. Actually it pays $900 million a year, about half the cost of maintaining US forces. South Korea could and should contribute more, yet both public and official attitudes seem grudging and penny-pinching: burden-sharing negotiations have often been hard-fought.
The danger with Trump’s approach, though he seems oblivious, is that two can play hardball. Seoul may call his bluff, knowing the US can hardly scuttle its huge $10.8 billion relocation: the US Army Corps of Engineers’ biggest job since it built the Panama Canal. By end-2018 most US forces will have moved into or near a much expanded Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul.
A silver lining for some, but an alarm bell for others, is Trump’s expressed – but later denied, characteristically – readiness to let South Korea and Japan have their own nuclear arsenals as the price of greater self-defence. North Korea’s steadily growing nuclear capability over the past decade, undeterred by UN censure or sanctions, has fuelled calls in Seoul and Tokyo – if still by a minority, thus far – to arm themselves similarly. Hitherto Washington had striven to uphold the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so any slackening would be radical and ominous.
To South Korean chagrin, for Donald Trump, like all recent US presidents, the Korea that will loom largest is the other one. What to do about Kim Jong-un will inevitably drive the new US administration’s policy towards the peninsula overall.
Here, as often, Trump has said many things, not all compatible. In June he expressed readiness to meet Kim, over a burger. That would be a radical change from Obama’s policy of strategic patience, which critics called neglect. But more often, he and his security team have sounded a familiar, not to say stale mantra: hectoring China to do more to rein in North Korea. How so many in Washington, from all parts of the spectrum, can persist in expecting Beijing to act as a tool of US foreign policy is a deep mystery. Here Trump represents continuity, not change.
Trump may also come to regret responding to provocation by Pyongyang, which has been boasting of developing a missile that could reach the continental US. While technical experts carefully weigh the plausibility of this claim, Trump weighed in with typical crassness, tweeting: ‘It won’t happen!’ Either this is baseless optimism, or it hints at a pre-emptive strike, something hitherto ruled out as too dangerous to contemplate.
A further twist is that Trump could not have arrived at a worse time for the South, which is in the throes of a political crisis. President Park Geun-hye has been impeached on 13 counts of criminal or constitutional violation, so the Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, is acting president. An unloved Park placeman and former prosecutor, he has no mandate to take major proactive policy decisions.
All parties are gearing up for a presidential election this year. Amid party splits and in-fighting, opinion polls suggest that voters will swing left. The front-runner, Moon Jae-in, who lost narrowly to Park in 2012, would resume engagement with North Korea, but the immediate issue is deployment of the US Thaad anti-missile defence system. Though now wavering somewhat, Moon had called for a final decision to be left to the next President – whereas the current government, and Washington, see it as a done deal.
Beijing is also angry, regarding Thaad’s powerful radar as upsetting the regional strategic balance. It is openly pressurising South Korean firms doing business in China, by far Seoul’s largest trading partner, to get the decision reversed. No amount of Trumpian posturing could have any effect.
In sum, rarely has the peninsular outlook been foggier. Kim Jong-un may goad the US with an ICBM launch soon: there are signs of preparation. If Trump felt the need to prove himself with a strike on North Korea, artillery fire could rain on Seoul. Even a limited skirmish could inflict great carnage; with today’s firepower a new Korean war, even short of nuclear weapons, would be catastrophic.
At the other, best-case extreme, Trump decides to have that burger with Kim instead, warmly backed by South Korea’s new President Moon. Kim is bought off – the least worst, or maybe only, option – and the two Koreas resume building pragmatic economic ties.
Likely outcomes fall between these two extremes. As all who know Korea well are aware, neither North nor South has ever been anyone’s willing puppet. If Trump comes over as a demanding bully, he will be met by an angry answering assertiveness – not only in Pyongyang, as always, but equally from Seoul. If Moon is elected, the Koreas will do business regardless of US wishes. That would push the South closer to China, though at another level the two are rivals for influence in Pyongyang.
A decade ago, in slightly happier times, the Six Party Talks from 2003 to 2008, though they failed to defang the North, were hailed as the embryo of a possible security architecture in a region notably lacking any – and where North Korea is far from the only potential flashpoint. Now, with Beijing already pursuing a China first policy, Trumpism risks rendering narrow national self-assertiveness the only game in town for the next few years.
North Korea sorely needs fresh thinking. But Trump is too random to rely on, and his advisers too hawkish. Chung-in Moon, South Korea’s best-known political scientist, compares this moment to the Nixon shock – worse, in his view – and concludes that ‘there is no reason to panic’. Yet today’s uncertainties are multiple and opaque. Even if Trump serves only a single term, it is far from clear how the two Koreas and their neighbours will be aligned in four years’ time.