“We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea,” said U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, pledging to both maintain the U.S.-South Korean alliance and to defend the South under the existing security alliance in a phone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Nov. 10, 2016, only a day after the confirmation of his victory in the U.S. presidential election. Trump also told Park, “We are going to be with you 100 percent,” when she reportedly said, “I expect that [we] can strengthen and develop the alliance down the road for the shared interests in various areas.”
The Nov. 10 phone conversation is significant in that it partially put to rest the concerns over a possible shift in U.S. ties with Seoul in line with the foreign policy positions of the Trump administration, which will come to power in January. Trump promised, “We are with you all the way and we will not waver,” with regard to the existing security alliance, which is the key to the U.S.-South Korean relationship. On the campaign trail, Trump accused the South of getting a free ride from the U.S. defense of their country and even suggested he might withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea if elected. This led us to worry that the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula could intensify if Trump were to win the U.S. presidential election.
Despite Trump’s pledge, a change, in whatever form, in the ties between the two countries is inevitable in the Trump era, considering the current U.S. political climate, wherein a political outsider has been elected as president and the out-of-power party has won the White House. For this reason, some assert the need to reach out to “Trump’s personal connections” to maintain current South Korean ties with the country, as these are individuals who will be responsible for U.S. foreign affairs and defense in the next U.S. administration. Even the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to be clearly flustered by Trump’s upset win, which ran counter to the major forecasts.
However, it is time to break from such visceral diplomacy. “We will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone. All people and all other nations” – Trump asserted his America-first utilitarian foreign policy line during his victory speech. Trump’s utilitarian approach is consistent not only in his foreign policy positions but also in the positions he takes on economic and social policy. Therefore, we should take this approach as the starting point for our diplomacy in Washington in the Trump era.
Such change in the U.S.-South Korea relationship does not necessarily signal a crisis for us since it can serve as a breakthrough for multiple pending issues – including the North Korean nuclear program, the South Korea-China relationship and the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in the South – considering the U.S. president-elect’s focus on seeking a realistic compromise instead of being moral. Meanwhile, the South Korean people should be able to eschew their dependence on the unilateral American defense of their country, remembering that the existing security alliance is a “mutual” defense treaty. There is no free lunch in diplomacy or security. When we do our share, we can stand tall and bolster the ties between the two countries.