Commentary / World

Should South Korea be worried?

by Stephen R. Nagy

North Korean belligerence in the form of nuclear and missile developments, a slowing Chinese economy and the successful vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye have compromised Seoul’s ability to plan and implement social, political and security policy.

In this severe geopolitical, domestic and economic environment, the rhetoric of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, if turned into action, would exacerbate the negative trends on the peninsula with a foreign policy agenda that seems to deviate from the bipartisan approach Washington has had in the past, one characterized by stalwart support for South Korea.

To illustrate, during the election Trump casually mentioned that he was willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jung Un while at the same time suggesting that both South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons. This was proposed as a deterrent to North Korean nuclear brinksmanship and perceived Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea, South China Sea and in South Korean territorial waters into which Chinese vessels have ventured as recently as Nov. 2. He has even suggested that South Korea should shoulder a larger burden of the costs associated with the U.S. military presence in the country.

For South Korea, a deterioration of its geopolitical environment has already been felt under the Obama administration. First, the strategic patience advocated by the Obama administration has not prevented the North from engaging in provocative behavior such as the testing of nuclear devices, submarine missile systems and various midrange to long-range missiles.

Second, the placement of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile technology in South Korea in response to the North’s missile tests has resulted in punitive actions being taken against South Korean companies in China in the form of sudden inspections of South Korean companies and the cancellation of Hallyu (“Korean wave”) popular culture events in China.

Both situations have been made worse by the slowdown in the economy of South Korea’s largest trading partner — China.

With these facts in mind, the South Korean government should be relieved by Trump’s post-election appointments and unorthodox salvos into the foreign policy arena. First, Trump’s cordial meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the latter’s planned visit to Pearl Harbor next week and the pair’s meeting scheduled for late January, after the presidential inauguration, strongly suggest that Trump is going to strengthen relationships with traditional allies, including South Korea.

The recent signing of an intelligence sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan is a strong sign that the U.S. will continue to encourage bilateral cooperation between the two neighbors but also expand trilateral cooperation with the U.S., rather than a sign that Japan and South Korea are going it alone on defense and intelligence.

Second, the selection of Trump’s advisers on East Asia suggests a stronger stance toward China. Support for liberal democracies in the region, such as Taiwan, is also compelling evidence that a Trump presidency will continue to support South Korea, which is perceived to be a victim of Chinese bullying and intransigence over the North’s belligerence as evidenced by the April 25, 2010, sinking of the Cheonan vessel, the bombardment of Yeonpyeong village on Nov. 23, 2010, and the latest series of missile and nuclear tests.

Third and related to the above point, Trump’s recent telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan suggests he will be taking a harder line on China and needs nations that can and will be willing partners in encouraging China to be more sensitive to the existing rules-based order that the U.S. will reinforce. This counters suggestions that Trump will not value ideology in his diplomacy, he will and in so doing will need the support of liberal democratic states such as South Korea, Japan and others in the region.

Although not without stylistic differences, Trump’s choice of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad as ambassador to China and his enthusiasm for having retired military officials in prominent positions within the Cabinet and as national security advisers, including potentially John Bolton as deputy secretary of state, should allay concerns in Seoul that U.S. foreign policy is being outsourced to amateurs and hard-core China hawks. Rather, the takeaway message for Seoul is that the U.S. under Trump will bolster its presence in East Asia and take harder-line positions on governments that Trump and his team perceive to be behaving assertively or playing unfairly in the areas of trade and the economy.

If Park is successfully impeached in the 60-day legal process currently underway and another election does take place, South Koreans themselves rather than Trump may tilt the current trends against their favor by electing a left-leaning parliament and president in the form of the Minjoo Party, whose leader has vowed to openly oppose the installation of the THAAD defense system on South Korean soil.

Moreover, the election of another government that is openly hostile toward Japan may complicate or retract the serious progress South Korean and Japanese leaders have made on the “comfort women” agreement and intelligence sharing on North Korea, as well as in encouraging trends toward stronger trilateral cooperation with the U.S.

North Korea will also be a key factor in Trump’s calculations going forward on South Korean and peninsular relations. Further brinkmanship by the North targeted at the U.S., especially the successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, may push the new administration to act unilaterally against the North in the form of an “overwhelming response” or prompt more intense collaboration between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.

While no crystal ball exists to predict Trump’s policies on the peninsula, we should be confident that under his leadership the U.S. will not tolerate a North Korea that can project power to the continental U.S. in any capacity. To realize this strategic objective the U.S. will need to continue to rely on proximate partners in the region such as South Korea and Japan. Part of that strategy will necessitate forward-deployed troops that can function alongside their South Korean and Japanese counterparts while at the same time investing in defense systems such as THAAD.

As with Japan-U.S. relations, national interests will be prioritized over pre-election rhetoric, which should leave South Koreans themselves less worried about Trump’s policies and more concerned about their own domestic politics and their impact on South Korea’s security situation.

Stephen R. Nagy is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University in Mitaka, Tokyo. This article was published in Policyforum.net.