It is now time to cool down and check the balance sheet of US President Trump’s Asia trip calmly. The whole world was awaiting the tour, a year after he was elected.
In addition, there were considerable implications in the destinations he visited. The Korean Peninsula is on the brink of war due to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Japan is getting even closer to the US following its eight-year honeymoon with President Barack Obama and China is starting to show its teeth in a hegemonic confrontation with Washington.
There was the possibility of an unforeseeable eventuality during Trump’s visit, considering that Trump has used the crisis on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia with the mindset of a businessman under his "America First" policy.
Despite this, it seems that most observers consider the visits as being better than feared. During his trip to South Korea, he made little to no aggressive remarks that might have heightened the crisis, and differences between South Korea and the US did not stand out. Trump’s trademark provocative tweets were also generally absent.
Not much could be new
In fact, as this summit was the fourth meeting between the presidents of the US and South Korea, and the third bilateral meeting in just six months since the Moon administration was inaugurated, nothing much could be new. Public confirmation of the solidarity of the alliance and cooperation against North Korea has always accompanied these meetings.
Items of interest included whether trade issues such as a renegotiation of the South Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), increasing South Korean contribution to US forces stationed on their soil, or confirming early deployment of THAAD would be discussed, as well as how much Trump would seek to pressure Moon. The South Korean government seems to have focused on building friendship through hospitality and on controlling possible damage rather than persuading the US or expecting big things. The unexpected visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek and large armament deal were positive factors that South Korea wanted.
The sensitive issues mentioned above and Trump’s address to the South Korean National Assembly, which possibly could have been another UN General Assembly-type speech, inflamed by Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who mentioned that military options on the Korean Peninsula would be a priority, worried the South Korean government. This is especially so because South Korea and China jointly announced that additional THAAD deployments, South Korea’s participation in joint Missile Defense with the US, and a military alliance between South Korea, Japan, and the US would not be an option just a week before Trump visited South Korea.
Despite these concerns, many inside and outside South Korea believe that Trump’s visit was quite successful. The most important factor is that Trump didn’t resort to his typical blunt remarks or unpredictable actions. He didn’t say or do anything that would hurt the pride of South Koreans, didn’t heighten the threat of war by saying he would destroy North Korea as he did in his address to the UN, and maintained a cautious and toned-down appearance. One can agree that Trump showed a different side of himself.
However, it is difficult to agree with the assessment that Trump’s visit was one where South Korea paid what it had to pay and earned what it could. It was, instead, one where the US got what it wanted from South Korea. It was unidirectional. Trump behaved as though it was a prerogative of the United States as Korea’s guardian when he visited the large-scale high-tech US military base, even with South Korea picking up 92 percent of the bill.
He didn’t, however, forget to criticize the KORUS FTA in the joint press conference with Moon after the summit. As he was celebrating the first anniversary of his presidential election, Trump was busy bragging about the fruits of his “America First” policy to his domestic audience. His emphasis was on the fact that he sold weapons and that this would help decrease the trade deficit and create new jobs.
Moon, on the contrary, was unable to secure any benefits or emphasize negotiation with North Korea or promote the Korean Peninsula Peace Initiative.
Trump focuses on the alliance’s cost
Although one can agree that the strength of the South Korea-US alliance was confirmed, it seems that we are blind to the cold reality that the cost of maintaining this alliance is increasing sharply. Trump repeatedly referred to South Korea as a great ally and a perpetual ally, more than a simple alliance partner. However, he was more into taking benefits in response to the nuclear crisis. The principle that reciprocity and national interests come first could not be found, even if we consider that the South Korea-US alliance is asymmetric.
Trump maximized the reality of the alliance’s unilateral cost rise. He pursues only business interests and does not voice values such as democracy, peace, or democratic leadership, as previous US presidents did. While not hypocritical, the bare face of the “America First” policy shows no solicitude or room for others.
“America First” is fundamentally different from pursuing national interests. In essence, it is tough diplomacy that has no regard for means and methods in pursuit of interests, changing anything that is disadvantageous to the US, regardless whether the opponent is an ally or a foe.
The Korean Peninsula, along with the Balkans, is often said to be cursed by its geography. It is, indeed, an asset to have the US as an ally present on this peninsula. Not only North Korean nuclear threats, but also China’s rise makes the US presence more important. However, the unilateral rise in alliance costs is not an issue that South Koreans can afford to overlook.
Despite these facts, why would many evaluate Trump's visit as a success? First, it is the learning effect of the Trump style. Trump is a type of US president we have never seen before, and he has been carving out his own territory, constantly breaching taboos and crossing limits. He has so far not thought of becoming the president for all Americans. He has and will continue to rule as if running a campaign for hardcore supporters. He divides sides and picks fights regardless of whether the opponent is domestic or foreign. He attacks African-American football players for kneeling during the national anthem and encourages conflicts rather than addressing white supremacist rallies.
He also clashes with the Republican Party, his own party, and mocks his own Secretary of State whom he himself appointed. He publicly announced that he would destroy North Korea at the UN General Assembly, a hall of peace, and declared Iran to be a murderous regime. Allies are no exception. He criticized NATO members. He called President Moon’s position a policy of appeasement, an ahistorical rudeness. He has also said that the US will not be hurt in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, despite the fact that there would be thousands of casualties in South Korea were a conflict to occur. Some say this is a high-level “crazy man strategy,” but it is simply gangster leadership, bereft of any class.
It seems that Trump’s South Korea visit was viewed as relatively fine because of the learning effect of these characteristics of the US president. However, this is the error of groupthink, which appears in policy decision theory of international relations. Groupthink refers to a tendency to strengthen conformity or consensus in decision-making groups. The actors participating in the group are pressured to follow the opinion of the group as a whole, while contrary opinions are hard to advocate or are easily ignored. It resembles the tunnel vision phenomenon in which the view is narrowed as one enters a tunnel, or a situation where balanced thought or objective judgment is blurred because one is excessively immersed in one thing.
This error is evident in the assessment that Trump has withdrawn from his hardline stance toward North Korea and has offered the possibility of opening a dialogue. This assessment seems to be based on the fact that Trump, who previously insisted on the uselessness of dialogue, made few intimidating comments about the military option and rather talked about negotiation.
However, this is groundless. The trouble-free expressions of hatred and contempt for North Korea, which accounted for more than two-thirds of his address to the National Assembly, were about how he would never be able to recognize North Korea as a dialogue partner. Such language as hell, cruel dictatorship, torture, rape, and murder were typical of his prejudice against the reality of North Korea.
This far surpasses the rhetoric of President George W. Bush, who called North Korea an outpost of tyranny, a pygmy, and a part of the “axis of evil,” and under whom North Korea-US relations were at their worst level up until now.
The error of groupthink also applies to the recent South Korea-China summit. The South Korean government and its media concluded that the South Korean and Chinese dispute over THAAD has been resolved with the three No’s that the two countries jointly announced. China did not revoke its position opposing THAAD. It just decided to take a two-track strategy.
China maintains its basic position opposing THAAD, while its practical relationship with South Korea will be separated from the issue and be allowed to recover. It is similar to the Moon administration’s position towards Japan: restore a practical relationship without giving up on the comfort women issue. This has very important implications. The more publicly South Korea acts as if China yielded, the more China will have to pull back its position on THAAD and, in severe cases, restart the sanctions. Also, for China, the joint announcement has become a benchmark, where it intends to see if South Korea actually complies.
In other words, the THAAD issue may reemerge depending on what South Korea does in the future.
Room for Korea to Maneuver
Early November was filled with summit diplomacy: Trump's visit to South Korea, the South Korea-China summit, and Moon's visit to Southeast Asia. Although we should be cautious of groupthink, this does not deny the achievements on the diplomatic front. The South Korean government did very well to restore its room to maneuver between China and the US, which was obliterated thanks to the diplomatic failures of the previous administration of President Park Geun-hye, including the THAAD issue. However, the possibility of repeating failures while overestimating successes still exists.
South Korea has barely returned to a situation where it can make a choice. In other words, South Korea is back to the point where it can choose after a long period of lost diplomatic leverage when it muddled between the US and China, telling each side only what they wanted to hear without any real strategy. The issue has not been resolved nor has South Korea succeeded in achieving something. Depending on its future choices, South Korea may succeed or fail.
Now is the real contest in which diplomacy is crucial. The course is correct to stitch up the THAAD issue with China and to pursue a practical two-track strategy regarding Japan. It is also a desirable time to diversify diplomacy with the New Northward policy and the New Southward policy. The strategy serves as an economic vision for mid- to long-term prosperity and an alternative multilateral regime that can overcome the confrontational structure and security dilemma in Northeast Asia.
But the biggest threat is still a complete break of inter-Korean relations stemming from the North Korean nuclear crisis. And as much as this, the unilateral framework of the US-South Korea relationship, where South Korea cannot exert any real power at all, is also an issue to be addressed. The three No’s between South Korea and China are a desirable position, but it would be hard for the US to accept such a position, because it represents South Korea practically drawing the limits of US Asia strategy.
There will also be a harsh backlash to the Trump administration’s focal strategy against China, a trilateral alliance between the US, South Korea, and Japan, and thorough strategic preparation is necessary.
Negotiations need to begin behind curtains. It is natural that even diplomatic matters should be explained and communicated to the public. In that regard, the Moon administration has dissolved the past government's mismanagement and secret diplomacy and declared a so-called “People-participatory Diplomacy." However, closed diplomacy might sometimes be necessary in the national interest, and it seems to be necessary now. The recent series of diplomatic movements have become too open to the public and room to maneuver has been narrowed by politicization.
A closed-door strategy is becoming more necessary as the influence of domestic politics on diplomacy is growing in almost all countries compared to the past. It would have been better if the three No’s between China and South Korea had been left unpublicized for a while. North Korea policy, including seeking dialogue, should happen behind curtains.
South Korea holds the fewest options
The reason why the North Korean nuclear crisis is a difficult problem today is that while South Korea is the biggest victim, it holds the fewest options. In this situation, the attitude most likely to emerge is defeatism or vague hopelessness and desperation. These two extremes are prone to fall into the error of groupthink. At the joint press conference by Trump and Moon, a reporter asked Trump about whether he was “passing” South Korea. It was surely a dumbfounding question, but on the other hand, it shows the current situation and the perceptions of South Koreans. Trump’s answer that there is "no skipping" on South Korea does not dictate South Korea’s standing.
But South Koreans should ask themselves hard questions and try to take the initiative. Despite the geopolitical difficulties stemming from the nuclear crisis and the power struggle among the US, Japan, China, and Russia, South Korea does possess considerable power of its own and should make use of the fact that its strategic importance is as high as the problems it faces.
Joonhyung Kim received his undergraduate degree in political science from Yonsei University, and obtained his Master’s and Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University. He is currently a professor of International and Area Studies at Handong Global University, and is serving in the Office of National Security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Policy Planning and International Organizations Office, as well as a member of the innovation committee of the Ministry of Unification. Reprinted with permission from the East Asia Foundation. Views expressed are those of the author.