HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA – Pyongyang’s game-changing intercontinental ballistic missile test of Tuesday — July 4 — and Beijing’s intransigence on reining in its troublesome ally reiterates the urgent need for the Washington-Seoul security partnership to address the growing menace of North Korea’s nuclear program. Despite differences between Washington and Seoul on resolving the North Korean dilemma, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington was a good start toward developing the rapport needed to work with one another.
The two leaders have their differences and are a study in contrasts. The right-leaning, impassioned Trump sees the North’s progressing ability to develop ballistic missiles as the most pressing national security issue on his desk. He has advocated a ramping-up of military pressure against Pyongyang and for China’s stepped-up involvement with curtailing the regime.
Thus far, neither the show of U.S. military might nor Trump’s overtures to China have borne fruit toward changing Pyongyang’s behavior. China has done little to address the issue. It put in place a temporary coal embargo against Pyongyang to no effect and its latest efforts include a paltry joint plan with Moscow announced Wednesday calling for the U.S. and South Korea to freeze military exercises in return for the North declaring a moratorium on its nuclear and missile programs.
In response to China’s inaction, Trump has threatened a trade war with China and has levied sanctions on a Chinese bank, a Chinese company and two Chinese nationals for their ties to the North’s nuclear program.
Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, is a former special forces soldier and human rights lawyer who is known as a person of quiet principle, lacking charisma. Through his years of serving as former President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff, he has built a reputation as being a methodical political operator of a liberal bent. Moon supports a policy of applying pressure on North Korea while simultaneously bringing back the Sunshine Policy of former President Kim Dae-jung — an approach that seeks to engage the North, encouraging interaction and cooperation.
In this spirit, shortly after taking office Moon made good on a campaign promise by suspending the deployment in South Korea of the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile interception system. Trump views THAAD as necessary to protect South Korea, Japan and forward-deployed American troops from the threat of North Korean missile attacks.
China vociferously objects to THAAD, fearing that it can be used to target Chinese military activity despite U.S. assertions to the contrary. Following the decision by Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye, to proceed with THAAD, Beijing enacted unofficial sanctions against Seoul in which South Korean entertainment entities and other conglomerates were boycotted while Chinese travel agencies were restricted from selling tour packages to South Korea. Unquestionably, China’s status as South Korea’s largest trading partner and its growing geopolitical standing are two factors Moon has been unable to ignore regarding this issue.
However, Pyongyang’s ground-breaking ballistic missile test — which some analysts believe demonstrate advances in the regime’s capabilities beyond prior intelligence estimates — could revive THAAD’s chances in the region. Moon may now have the political cover he needs to allow for its full installation. And Japan may now be encouraged to rethink its recent decision to forgo THAAD for the Aegis Ashore missile-defense system, particularly in light of the June 21 U.S.-Japan Aegis missile defense test that failed to intercept a targeted rocket over the Pacific.
Despite their differences, Moon and Trump last week presented a united front. During their joint news conference, Moon stated: “The North Korean nuclear issue must be resolved without fail. North Korea should by no means underestimate the firm commitment of Korea and the U.S. in this regard.”
Trump echoed in kind, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to its alliance with South Korea. “Together we are facing the threat of the reckless and brutal regime in North Korea,” he said. “The nuclear and ballistic missile programs of that regime require a determined response. … (The U.S.) will always defend our allies.”
Both men have also expressed a willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances as well as stating concern about human rights abuses in the North.
In spite of uncertainty as to how both leaders would get on, Moon explained that he would pursue policy toward the North “with more confidence” after his discussions with Trump, praising Trump’s “determination and pragmatism” and sharing that both men were able to build a “broad consensus” on various issues.
Fulfilling promises to his campaign supporters, Trump described the South Korea-U.S. trade agreement as being “rough for the U.S.” and pledged to work with Seoul to create a “fair and reciprocal” trade arrangement with South Korea.
Yet, the public airing of differences between the two allies ended there.
The initial meeting between Trump and Moon demonstrated a shared commitment to ridding Pyongyang of its nuclear weapons and ending its missile program. While it is unknown what, if any, rapport was developed between the two men, their joint statements appear to indicate a willingness to work together and with resolve toward addressing the unfolding crisis.
Ted Gover teaches political science at Central Texas College, Camp Pendleton, California.