The Era of Trump, South Korea’s Choice

Candidate Trump and President Trump are different. Although Trump mentioned nuclear armament for South Korea and Japan during his campaign, he does not want nuclear competition in Northeast Asia. South Korea must attempt a tentative compromise with North Korea. If North Korea rejects this offer, South Korea must join with the maritime powers and hurry the South Korea-Japan military intelligence-sharing pact.

Even before emerging from the shock that Donald Trump has won the U.S. presidential election, countries worldwide are seriously thinking about their own response. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. shedding its leadership role as the “world’s police” throughout his campaign seemed to concede continental order to China and Russia while sharing the burden with Japan as dominant maritime powers. During Trump’s campaign, he requested a meeting with Henry Kissinger. After meeting with Kissinger, Trump complained that he had nothing to learn from him. Kissinger represents the geopolitical palace of power in relations with China. Either Trump did not understand Kissinger’s grand explanation, or he rejected it because of his America-first, isolationist, and protectionist point of view.

With respect to U.S. defense commitments to its allies, Trump’s believes the U.S. should extract payments for defense, effectively saying that if there is a war, you’re on your own. The statements he made during his election campaign about tolerating the nuclear armament of Japan and South Korea come from this context. He said the United States already spends an immense amount on defense and if allies don’t feel protected, he wouldn’t block their using nuclear weapons to safeguard their own interests.

This completely reverses Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize vision for a nuclear-free world. George W. Bush’s “ABC” or “All But Clinton” policy of reversing all of his predecessor’s plans gained notoriety, but Trump wants a reversal of both domestic and foreign affairs as his “ABO” or “All But Obama” policy. In domestic politics, President Obama’s health care plan, a health insurance program that supports the common people, is predicted to be the first victim.

The ABO policy targets that will affect South Korea are the demand to revise the free trade agreements and repealing and retreating from the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Although the strongest deterrent in facing provocations from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is the U.S. military presence and its strategic assets in Guam, it is growing likely that the constant deployment of U.S. troops in Korea will be thoroughly re-examined. Despite diplomatic officials’ assurances that the Trump administration’s views that the U.S.-South Korea alliance will be unchanged, it is not promising.

Because of this great power burden-sharing, regardless of whether it is the United States or China, maritime powers or continental powers, we in South Korea seem to have fallen prey to a serious dilemma. We are facing an existential crisis with North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs. China has been unable to keep North Korea’s provocations in check. Russia only pays lip service to issues on the Korean peninsula. Obama has redirected his interest from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East.

Even Trump’s Korea policy and recognition of the U.S.-South Korea alliance says that South Korea should have its own self-defense policy, and if U.S. military deterrence is needed, South Korea should “buy” it with cash. This is the logic of a real estate businessman who has an animal instinct for making. Therefore, there must be detailed research on how to prepare for this Trumpism.

With the Trump administration coming into office, talks of nuclear armament will once again flourish within South Korea. However, we cannot support this. U.S. foreign policy is not something that Trump can do alone. Candidate Trump and President Trump are not the same person. Although Trump approved of South Korea and Japan getting nuclear weapons in the excitement of the campaign, no U.S. president would want a nuclear contest in Northeast Asia. This is because nuclearization of South Korea and Japan will lead to nuclear development in Taiwan and a significant increase in the nuclear capabilities of China and Russia.

Kim Jong-un and Trump are both temperamental hooligans. Hooligans can identify with other hooligans. Kim Jong-un will be afraid of and on guard against Trump. South Korea will be able use this opportunity, and will first attempt to reach a tentative compromise with North Korea. If North Korea rejects this offer and carries out a sixth nuclear test or further mid-range or long-range missile tests, South Korea must modify its defense strategy and join in the U.S.-Japan maritime coalition. South Korea must cease its wasteful anti-Japan sentiment and negotiate to conclude the military intelligence sharing pact to facilitate the transfer of military intelligence between South Korea, the United States, and Japan.

The security-obsessed China will not be a credible partner. Chinese fishing vessels challenge the South Korean government’s authority, the rhetoric which matches the action of Chinese fishermen, and the hijacking of historical impartiality are all supported by the Chinese government, and in order to grow the “Chinese Dream,” Xi Jinping’s China only sees South Korea as an economic partner, not a security partner. If Trump truly leaves continental order to China and Russia and selects maritime power, we must minimize our participation in “One Belt, One Road” and in the Eurasia initiative in order to jump on the bandwagon with the United States and Japan as maritime powers.* If we don’t move past the state of paralysis of Choi Soon-sil-gate soon, we won’t be able to respond to such a challenge.**

*Editor’s note: “One Belt, One Road” refers to a development strategy and framework proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among countries, primarily between the People’s Republic of China and the rest of Eurasia.

**Editor’s note: Choi Soon sil-gate is a reference to a current South Korean political scandal involving South Korean Choi Soon-sil, a friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

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