What Does Moon Jae-in’s Election Mean for US-South Korea Relations?

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By Alan D. Romberg

There are clearly many concerns on both sides about the future of the U.S.-South Korea relationship under the combined leadership of this week’s projected election winner Mr. Moon Jae-in, and President Donald Trump. Those concerns center around both substance and style, with echoes of the Roh Moo-hyun-George W. Bush difficult relations very much in people’s minds.

Will President Moon adopt a soft attitude toward the North that will let Kim Jong Un “off the hook” with regard to denuclearization? Despite his somewhat puzzling and disturbing remark that he would be “honored” to meet with Kim (albeit under the “right” conditions), will President Trump go beyond simply calling for harsher sanctions in the event of an ICBM launch or another nuclear test and ratchet up military pressure that will trigger conflict? Even though THAAD is operational, will Moon suspend its operation and possibly kill the program in order to ease pressure from China, thereby weakening defense against North Korea? Will the U.S. insist that, whether the Republic of Korea (ROK) directly pays for THAAD or not, Seoul must pick up a substantially greater share of the costs of U.S. deployments in Korea?

Along with issues relating to the future of KORUS FTA, these are extremely consequential matters that Moon and Trump will have to need to manage well if the alliance is to remain vital and effective. 

Many people see an inevitable clash over the decision these leaders will insist upon as well, potentially, over the nationalist resentment that Trump has stirred up with his pressure on Seoul and especially with his blustery style and his remarks on such sensitive matters as Korean history. 

Particularly in light of Trump’s statements stretching back into the campaign, but including since he has been in office, insisting that Korea do this or that, Moon will have to “stand tall” as the leader of a proud and independent nation so as not to be branded as a lackey of the United States and so he is seen as a person who will insist that the relationship is one of true partnership.

But Moon will also bear responsibility for ensuring that he is — and is seen to be — a good partner, not a reckless echo of President Roh’s early tendency to establish himself as an almost neutral mediator or “balancer” between the United States and China or appeaser of North Korea.

While some Americans worry that Moon will not understand this responsibility, I disagree. Clearly his tendency will be toward more engagement with the North, but, at least recently, he has been careful to cast his policies as grounded in a strong alliance with the United States and partner with others in the Six-Party process as insisting that engagement with Pyongyang is directed at denuclearization as a fundamental condition for easing tensions on the Peninsula. He has indicated he wants to meet early with President Trump, and that will be important so that the two of them can not only avoid surprises but also coordinate and agree as much as possible on next steps.

I also think that, as we have seen in so many areas, while Trump is given to outbursts that confuse and complicate the situation, he is also quite capable of reversing course when he is persuaded it is in his, and the country’s, interest to do so. Having initially suggested that Korea’s failure to increase its burden-sharing contribution could lead to dissolution of the alliance, for example, Trump completely reversed course and reaffirmed the importance of the alliance and his commitment to it. That doesn’t mean he has changed his view about the need for Korea to contribute more to our common defense efforts, or that the KORUS FTA doesn’t need fixing. But, while one can legitimately be concerned about the damage caused by his intemperate remarks or what sometimes appears to be neglect of the ROK when considering how to manage the North Korea problem, so far the record is one of backing off of positions that go too far and settling on policies that make more sense.

A good first meeting between Moon and Trump could do much to ensure continuing close coordination and collaboration in the future. So for now, both sides need to aim at producing a successful U.S.-ROK summit early on, paying attention both to substance but also to arrangements for the meeting that will facilitate their getting to know and appreciate one another as colleagues, partners and friends over the crucial period ahead.

Alan D. Romberg is a Distinguished Fellow and the Director of the East Asia program at Stimson.

Photo credit: Dickson Phua via Flickr
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