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The Peninsula

An Agenda for U.S.-Korea Relations Under the Trump Administration

Published January 23, 2017
Category: South Korea

By Troy Stangarone

As the Trump administration settles into Washington, DC, it inherits an alliance with South Korea that is not only in good shape, but that has been well run for nearly a decade now under both Republican and Democratic administrations. While the Trump administration inherits a solid base from which to begin its relations with South Korea, it also faces a potentially more difficult environment than the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As the Trump administration begins to build its foreign policy, what should its agenda be for relations with South Korea and handling North Korea?

To develop an agenda for any administration it is necessary to consider the challenges and opportunities it is likely to face in the near and long term. In the case of the Trump administration and the Korean peninsula the immediate term is likely to present the most challenges. The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye has changed the political environment and the Trump administration will need to manage relations with the interim administration while preparing to build a relationship with the successor to President Park Geun-hye either later this year or in early 2018 depending on how the Constitutional Court rules on President Park’s impeachment.

At the same time, at some point during the first year of the Trump administration North Korea will likely present the administration with a crisis by conducting another nuclear test or the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. With pressing needs related to North Korea and political change on the horizon in South Korea, there are five key areas where the Trump administration should focus its efforts in relations with South Korea.

Maintaining the Current Strength of U.S.-Korea Relations

With the alliance between the United States and South Korea in good shape, the first priority should be to make sure it stays that way. With South Korea entering a period of political transition this will present the administration with new challenges, but since it may also seek change in the alliance new opportunities. To best maximize those opportunities and maintain good relations the administration should begin building relationships with all of the four major political parties in South Korea to help identify areas of common agreement where the relationship can be grown.

The New Frontier Issues

Growing the relationship between South Korea and the United States beyond the security alliance has been a hallmark of the past two administrations. One area of opportunity for the Trump administration is continuing the New Frontiers initiative. The New Frontiers are efforts by the United States and South Korea to cooperate on issues such as cybersecurity, global health, and climate change. While the new administration may have its doubts about climate change, energy cooperation, a subset of any climate change initiative, is one area ripe for potential cooperation in light of South Korea’s need for energy and the United States ability to supply both LNG and renewable sources, and hence to could be an opportunity for the new administration to expand job growth in the United States.

Both the United States and South Korea also face increasing threats from cyberattacks, and a common adversary in this realm in North Korea. In light of North Korea’s suspected hacks of banks and government facilities in South Korea, and Sony pictures in the United States, Seoul and Washington have a shared interested in cooperating on detecting, deterring, and defending critical infrastructure from North Korean and other attacks.

Trilateral Relations Between the United States, South Korea, and Japan

Much as with the Obama administration, the Trump administration will need to focus on the trilateral relationship with Japan. While the Obama administration put significant effort in bringing the two countries together, South Korea’s relationship with Japan is still fragile. While the December 2015 agreement on the comfort women remains in place, some South Korean presidential candidates have suggested that it might not be adequate.  Japan has recently temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea and paused talks over a currency swap in response to the placement of a statue honoring the Comfort Women outside of its consulate in Busan. The intelligence sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan is also relatively new and controversial in South Korea. With this relationship still in a fragile state, like the Obama administration, the Trump administration will need to work behind the scenes to maintain a working trilateral relationship and allow South Korea and Japan space to continue to work through their difficulties.

Negotiating a New Special Measures Agreement

More of a medium term issue for the Trump administration will be negotiating a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA). The SMA is the vehicle through which South Korea’s contribution to the stationing of U.S. troops is set. The current agreement is set to expire in 2018. Increasing the contribution of U.S. allies has been a key issue for President Trump and the new SMA negotiations will provide the administration an opportunity to increase South Korean contributions. If the Trump administration seeks an increase in line with prior negotiations, it should be able to achieve its objective of increasing South Korean contributions. However, one tactic it should avoid is seeking to reopen the current SMA or issue a threat to withdraw U.S. troops until Korea pays all or nearly all of the cost of stationing our troops on the peninsula. That could lead to pushback in South Korea and, in light of the increasing threat from North Korea, would be a case of fighting the wrong battle at the wrong time.

North Korea Policy

When it comes to dealing with North Korea, the Trump administration will need to maintain close coordination with South Korea. The alliance functions best when the United States and South Korea are on the same page on North Korea, and this will be increasingly the case as Pyongyang looks to finish the development of its nuclear weapons program and its related delivery systems.

There are three main areas where the United States needs to ensure common agreement with South Korea – sanctions, engagement, and missile defense. The first is the overall approach to North Korea.  This is where sanctions and engagement come into play. The Obama administration and the Park administration have sought to pressure North Korea to return to talks over its nuclear program. It seems likely that the Trump administration will pursue a similar policy and it will be important to ensure that that there is bipartisan support in Seoul for continued sanctions, especially if the Trump administration chooses to be more aggressive on sanctions than the Obama administration.

The new administration in Seoul may seek to increase its engagement with North Korea, so the Trump administration will need to develop a sanctions policy that could dovetail with engagement by South Korea, preferably by working with Seoul to develop ways to engage North Korea that do not undermine efforts to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Similarly, President Trump has suggested in the past that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un. If either administration in Seoul or Washington seeks to hold a summit meeting with North Korea, there will need to close coordination to make sure misunderstandings to not develop and that policy remains coordinated.

There will also need to be coordination on defensive matters such as the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and missile defense more broadly. As deterrence plays a more important role in containing a potentially nuclear armed North Korea, improved missile defense in both South Korea and the region will be a key policy issue. However, China will continue to pressure South Korea to refrain from deploying a missile defense system and the alliance will need to maintain a common position on the issue.

The dynamics of North Korea and political change in South Korea, along the with Trump administration’s desire to develop a new type of relationship with U.S. allies, will make navigating U.S.-Korea relations more challenging than in the past. Ultimately, however, the Trump administration’s goal should be to develop the relationship with South Korea so that it that passes the alliance it inherited on to future successors in as good or better shape as it received it. If this means scaling back some of the administration’s own ideas for the alliance or finding a way to find successful compromises that meet both countries objectives that would good policy and alliance building. As the old saying says, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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