This is the seventh in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEAN, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
By Kyle Ferrier
The United States is a crucial security and economic partner for South Korea. Not only is the U.S. treaty obligated to defend South Korea, but 28,500 American troops are stationed below the DMZ. Should an armed conflict arise on the peninsula Washington would assume operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces. Since its implementation in March 2012, the KORUS FTA has helped to secure the U.S. as South Korea’s second largest trading partner, making it the cornerstone of the bilateral economic relationship. While the strength of these ties is built on a foundation of shared values transcending leadership transitions over the years, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly disputed fundamental aspects of the relationship. For the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, just as central to resolving the issues raised by Trump will be understanding his approach to foreign affairs.
Trump won the U.S. presidential election last November on a platform of radical change. In contrast to the mood of Obama’s campaign in 2008 which employed slogans such as “Hope” and “Yes We Can,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” complemented his bleak portrayal of a broken American system abused by elites and foreign countries alike. Trump often put South Korea in his crosshairs, claiming they did not pay enough for U.S. troops stationed there—going so far as to suggest withdrawing military personnel in exchange for allowing Seoul to have nuclear weapons as a cost saving measure—and criticizing the KORUS FTA for destroying U.S. jobs.
Once elected, Trump was quick to reverse course on the alliance, assuring President Park of U.S. commitment just one day later. Since then South Korea has hosted a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Matthis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, and most recently CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Although these visits are an extension of initial efforts to reassure Seoul, they are contrasted by Trump’s “disruptive” approach to foreign policy, which draws on his campaign rhetoric, prioritizes his interpretation of American interests, and is underwritten by unpredictability. The disruptive approach is seemingly being applied to adversary and ally alike, which directly impacts South Korea through U.S. policy on North Korea as well as issues of alliance management and bilateral trade.
The Trump administration has repeatedly stated Obama’s second term policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea is dead, yet it may just be going by a different name. At the onset of his presidency, Trump was relatively quiet on North Korea, with some hoping this might be interpreted as a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un. However, since mid-March the administration has taken a more forceful stance. Secretary Matthis first announced the end of “strategic patience” on his trip to Seoul. Soon after, multiple senior officials and even Trump himself claimed military options were back on the table, particularly a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Then, after a two-month policy review, the administration released its agenda of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which some have noted is remarkably similar to “strategic patience.” Both are centered on pressuring Beijing to influence Pyongyang and waiting for credible indications from the North that they are willing to reduce their illicit weapons programs. Despite posturing otherwise, security realities in Northeast Asia look to be constraining Trump to largely continuing Obama’s approach, at least for the time being, which is more than can be said for alliance management and trade relations.
Although Trump seemed to be shying away from campaign calls for Seoul to pay more for U.S. military presence on the peninsula, recent comments raise new questions, particularly for an upcoming milestone in the alliance. Trump’s call for South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system in an April 28 interview was refuted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster only a few days later. However, it was not enough to erase the negative impact on the public discourse in South Korea, unnecessarily complicating Moon’s promised domestic review of THAAD’s deployment. The president’s comments also raise questions over how he may attempt to shape the renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that is set to expire at the end of this year, which governs the burden sharing arrangement. It is certainly conceivable that Trump may influence SMA negotiations by similarly calling for Seoul to contribute more to the alliance, including the potential to leverage OPCON.
The last major challenge for the Moon administration will be addressing Trump’s criticism of the KORUS FTA. Trump has repeatedly attacked the trade deal, citing the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with South Korea, though it is still unclear if he will pursue the actions he has espoused. KORUS was one of only two trade agreements singled out for not meeting expectations in The President’s Trade Policy Agenda released by USTR, the other being NAFTA. Trump recently suggested that he might terminate the agreement if South Korea was not open to renegotiations, similar to the approach he has taken with NAFTA.
Whereas the relevant senior U.S. officials have attempted to counter Trump’s disruptive approach to North Korea and the alliance, competing coalitions within the administration on trade further obscures how U.S. policy might be carried out. On the one hand, there are those who favor policies more traditionally associated with protectionism: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Director of the new Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, and USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer. And on the other are those who support greater global engagement: Director of the National Trade Council Gary Cohn and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner. Although it is not yet clear how the U.S. will seek to pursue new concerns over KORUS—despite generally favorable reports by USTR and the US International Trade Commission released in the past year—the first major hurdle will come at the end of June when Commerce and USTR are expected to release their findings from a major review of all bilateral trading relationships.
How soon the Moon administration attempts to address these challenges with the United States will significantly dictate their potential impact on U.S.-South Korea relations. Whether it is growing pains or a more structural issue, the Trump administration’s implementation of foreign policy so far has negatively influenced South Korean public opinion. While the newly adopted policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” is remarkably similar to “strategic patience,” the process of getting there raised serious questions about U.S. credibility through concerns such as the location of the USS Carl Vinson and the perception that Washington would pre-emptively strike North Korea without consent from Seoul. Efforts by senior U.S. officials to smooth over some of Trump’s more controversial remarks have helped to stabilize relations, but the U.S. loses face each time. Even so, there are still contentious remarks that have not been sufficiently addressed.
Recent polling shows Trump’s popularity in Korea has sharply declined—falling below China’s Xi Jinping who is punishing South Koreans over THAAD. Koreans still view the U.S. favorably, yet it is unclear how long this duality can be sustained. A poor public opinion of the United States would severely constrain Moon’s ability to successfully coordinate the issues Trump has raised, which should make early and direct dialogue with his counterpart in Washington a high priority.
Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.