South Korean President Moon Jae-in is currently on a five-day visit to the United States. He chose the U.S. as the destination for his first visit since coming to power. South Korea, regardless of who is in power, always considers the U.S. to be its superior; the only difference between them is a matter of degree among different South Korean leaders.
Moon Jae-in could be anxious on this trip because his list of issues to discuss are different from those of Trump. With potentially totally different positions, it is not known whether or not it will be possible to obtain Trump’s understanding or approval during talks. Regarding whether or not he will be able to put his global strategy into effect relates to whether or not he can implement his plan to govern the country.
The two thorniest issues are the North Korean nuclear problem and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system issue.
The North Korean nuclear problem is the focus this time. South Korea and the U.S. are of one mind on this: to pressure North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons in order to make the peninsula nuclear-free. But South Korea and the United States’ methods of achieving this are not the same. Trump is not currently threatening military strikes, but instead of tightening the screws of sanctions, he is naturally demanding that South Korea play a bigger role in this situation. Moon Jae-in advocates using dialogue as well as sanctions, and places particular emphasis on talks. During an interview with American media, he has even said he would like to draw North Korea back to the negotiation table by the end of this year. One side wants to increase sanctions; the other has its eye on dialogue. Clearly, these two ways of thinking are heading in different directions. They are incompatible, and attention is not being paid where it is needed. What Moon Jae-in must do this time, I’m afraid, is to discover what Trump really means and look behind what he says. We will have to see how much Trump permits him to do this.
The White House has said that THAAD is not the main topic of discussion between the U.S. and South Korea, and this has allowed Moon Jae-in to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump is being completely unyielding regarding the stationing of THAAD in South Korea and has even threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, while China and Russia unflinchingly oppose the stationing of THAAD in South Korea. Both sides are resolute, but neither side can afford to offend the other. Moon Jae-in is currently being equivocal. The decision to delay for a year on the grounds of an environmental impact assessment could be called the best alternative under the circumstances.
South Korean scholars believe that previous South Korean governments have handled U.S.-South Korean and Sino-South Korean relations according to the U.S.-South Korean alliance framework. Moon Jae-in seems to be leaning in the direction of treating South Korean-U.S. relations on a level equal to South Korean-China relations to achieve a dual-track system.
This, of course, is a rational choice. But if they do not send THAAD away, President Moon’s only real course of action will be to try to make Trump empathize with South Korea’s difficulties, and tell him that the fact is that half of South Korea’s population opposes the deployment of THAAD, state that it is hard to support THAAD because it will make enemies out of China and Russia, point out to him that THAAD will weaken South Korea’s superior status in Northeast Asian geopolitics, and that this is inconsistent with benefitting U.S. strategically, etc. There may not be the opportunity, or it may be inconvenient, to say this to Trump. Someday in the future, there will be open communication channels through which he will listen. At some point in the future, this could create the proper conditions and lay the groundwork to discuss the THAAD issue.
The trade deficit and the stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea at South Korea’s expense are the two main sources of friction in U.S.-South Korea bilateral relations. The U.S. is always a party in the trade deficit; demonstrating an upward trend last year, the trade deficit increased to $300 billion. South Korea has unexpectedly had to dig deep to pay the expenses of U.S. troops stationed there. On both these points, Trump has ripped off South Korea on more than one occasion, claiming that trade between the countries is unreasonable and needs to change and that he cannot tolerate South Korea wanting security from the U.S. without having to come up with the money for it.
Moon Jae-in knows that the leaders of foreign countries all want to meet with Trump, regardless of whether the meetings take place in the U.S. or whether they meet during Trump’s foreign visits. There must be enough repeated meetings and gifts, as is apparently already the custom. He also knows that issues that can be solved with money are not really considered issues. Moon Jae-in took many well known South Korean entrepreneurs with him on his visit to the U.S. and had prepared to deliver a considerable gift. According to South Korean media reports, Samsung Electronics Co., LG Electronics Co., Hyundai, SK Conglomerate, Doosan Corporation, CJ Group, etc., all announced, one after another, their plans to invest in the United States. The entrepreneurs are deciding about investing $12.8 billion in America in the next five years. These businesses are also preparing to spend $22.4 billion on U.S. gas supplies and aircraft, among other things.
Moon Jae-in has repeatedly emphasized his aim of establishing close relations with President Trump to increase mutual trust in one another and to strengthen the U.S.-South Korean alliance. In his opinion, both sides firmly trust one another, and the concrete issues are easy to handle. With this in mind, it seems likely he will achieve his goals on this visit to the United States.