Author: Scott A. Snyder, CFR
On 29 June 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived in Washington for an early summit with his US counterpart Donald Trump. Despite dramatic contrasts in the circumstances, ideologies and style of these two unlikely partners, the convergence of national interests and common objectives concerning North Korea was sufficient to keep the US–South Korea alliance on track. Ironically, successful coordination on the issue of North Korea exposed differing views on trade and burden sharing that will keep diplomats from both countries busy.
Prior to the summit, it was common to find analyses suggesting that the chemistry between Moon and Trump would be analogous to mixing oil and water. The progressive Moon has been an understated and personable domestic bridge-builder, elected on an anti-corruption platform following a presidential impeachment scandal. In contrast, the conservative Trump has pursued a brash and divisive approach to governance that takes no prisoners and has blurred ethical boundaries between government and business.
An Asan Institute poll showed that South Korean support for the alliance remains high —despite Trump’s declining personal popularity compared to former president Barack Obama — with over half of South Koreans polled supporting the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment. Moon supporters expressed wariness that Trump and Moon would have no chemistry or that Trump would embarrass and humiliate Moon. But Moon’s strategy of alignment with Trump on security issues — forecast in public interviews in the weeks prior to the summit — took almost every security issue off the table before Moon arrived in Washington.
Moon declared in those interviews that he was in agreement with Trump on the need to increase pressure on North Korea, while seeking opportunities for substantive dialogue. Moon also allayed fears surrounding his authorisation of an environmental assessment of THAAD, indicating it was intended to strengthen support for the system and the legitimacy of its deployment by following transparent and democratic procedures. By the time Moon arrived in Washington to meet Trump, no big picture security issues remained on the table that could spark disagreement.
But the convergence on security issues left space for Trump to express his longstanding, personally-held views of South Korea as an economic free rider. Trump tweeted following dinner with Moon that he was already renegotiating the Korea–US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), an announcement that shocked South Korean communications officials accompanying Moon.
Trump also placed discordant emphasis on the need for reciprocal trade and for South Korea’s cooperation to level the playing field for US auto exports and avoid facilitating unfair dumping of steel in US markets. The South Korean side defended itself by stating that economic differences expressed by Trump were not included in their Joint Statement.
The Joint Statement itself underscored the extensive institutionalisation of US–South Korean cooperation within the alliance, while reflecting an evolution in views on some key issues. It also reflected important continuities with the 2009 and 2013 US–South Korea Joint Vision statements, including commitment to ‘conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control’, development of deterrence capabilities, ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner’, concern about North Korean human rights conditions, and the importance of maintaining US–Japan–South Korea trilateral cooperation.
The joint commitment to ‘foster expanded and balanced trade while creating reciprocal benefits and fair treatment between the two countries’ synthesized efforts to address emerging US–South Korea gaps on trade relations and burden sharing. While it is too much to say that the KORUS FTA is being renegotiated, the terms and trade-offs underlying existing bilateral trade and security frameworks are clearly under pressure to adapt to new leadership priorities.
Despite the media focus on the chemistry of Moon’s first meeting with Trump, three events surrounding the Moon–Trump summit appear more likely to influence future US–South Korea cooperation and regional dynamics.
First, only days prior to the summit, the US treasury department announced the unilateral designation of the Bank of Dandong under Section 311 of the Patriot Act, the same provision of US law used to sanction the Banco Delta Asia in 2005 — a sanction that had significant reputational effects for financial institutions doing business with North Korea. It represents the first US unilateral effort since 2005 to use the Patriot Act for the purpose of applying secondary sanctions against Chinese entities doing business with North Korea.
The new Bank of Dandong sanctions underscore that US patience for Chinese sanction enforcement failures is running out. The sanctions announcement was also perceived by some analysts as a blow to any South Korean effort to implement economic engagement strategies toward North Korea at the expense of pressure.
Second, Trump and Moon also announced a trilateral dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G20 summit. This dinner stands in stark contrast to the failure of Japan, China and South Korea to schedule their next trilateral summit meeting, reportedly as a result of Chinese frustration with Moon’s failure to reverse the THAAD deployment.
Finally, North Korea’s successful intercontinental ballistic missile test on 4 July 2017 has provided a direct challenge to Trump’s tweet in January that such a test would not happen, generating even greater pressure on the President to force Kim Jong-un to reverse course.
Trump and Moon may make an odd couple. The fact that they are getting along suggests a triumph of pragmatism over ideology, which marks a good start for the time being and will be crucial as the relationship faces even greater challenges ahead.
Scott A. Snyder is author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers (forthcoming) and Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on US–Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.