When newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in headed to Washington in the summer of 2017, things were looking rather glum for the prospects of enlisting Washington as a partner in his engagement policy toward Pyongyang – which some pundits had dubbed the “moonshine policy.”
A then-harsh talking President Trump spent that summer and fall labeling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man,” even during his first speech before a rather nervous United Nations General Assembly.
The American President even promised last summer with much bravado to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” down upon North Korea. Pyongyang responded with a series of missile launches, which continued until November, and even conducted an additional underground nuclear test in September.
The Korean peninsula seemed on the brink of war – with Seoul caught in the middle between two bellicose rivals.
This was followed by the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea in February of this year. President Moon apparently took his cue from India’s Prime Minister Modi, who had used a Washington visit last year to invite First Daughter Ivanka Trump to lead a delegation to India in November, where press reported Ivanka received “the red carpet treatment.”
Perhaps Moon had also read “the Art of the Deal” where author Trump had written, decades before he became President, “you can trust family in a way you can never trust anybody else.”
For whatever reason, President Moon used First Daughter Ivanka’s attendance at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics to wine and dine her and apparently convince her of the benefits of the “moonshine policy” of dialogue with Kim Jong-un. At the same time South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha seemed to become Ivanka’s best new girlfriend.
Whatever was said or done, it worked. President Trump just the month before had again spoken harshly of North Korea in his first State of the Union Address, with the parents of UVA student Otto Warmbier, who died due to North Korean abuse, and with injured North Korean refugee Ji Seong-ho in the audience.
“No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea. North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons could very soon threaten our homeland,” he said.
But in early March, soon after First Daughter Ivanka’s return from South Korea, the President abruptly reversed course and announced his willingness to meet with Kim Jong Un. Trump’s rhetoric on Kim and his regime also underwent a one hundred and eighty degree reversal.
And in a breach of normal diplomatic protocol, the first official word of this major U.S. foreign policy reversal did not come from a White House or State Department spokesperson but rather from South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, as he emerged from a White House meeting on March 8th.
By April President Trump was publicly stating that Kim Jong Un, the leader he once mocked as “Little Rocket Man,” “has really been very open and honorable.”
As the June 12th first-ever summit between a sitting American President and the leader of North Korea, in Singapore, was achieved, South Korea was seeing its number one foreign policy objective move forward beyond its wildest dreams.
President Moon had publicly joined the chorus of Trump admirers in suggesting that the President might be even worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. (The actual concrete achievements of the summit – beyond a photo-op for Trump and garnering international recognition for Kim Jong Un – are, of course, another story.)
Seoul seemed to have learned the lesson that circumventing the usual diplomatic channels and government bureaucracy – forget the fired Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster – and going via family channels was the very essence of the “Art of the Deal.” These personal connections – what the Chinese call “guanxi” – have long been at the heart of backdoor deal-making in Asia – and more oftentimes in the United States than Americans care to admit.
The difficulty with “guanxi,” however, is that it relies almost exclusively upon the personal relations cultivated with the other actor – in this case the Trump family.
As Washington recently witnessed the dual political earthquakes of the Manafort conviction and the Cohen guilty plea on the same day, the potential fragility of the Trump presidency was again underscored.
It was a blow that the Republican party and Trump Administration did not need, with a potential blue wave of Democratic victories in the November midterm elections appearing on the horizon.
With the gun violence victims from a Florida high school on a cross-country tour this summer aimed at registering millennial voters – who vote 2-1 Democratic, and with women coming out as candidates in unprecedented numbers – usually Democratic nominees – and a registered gender voting gap of twenty points favoring the Democrats, the blue wave, with the Manafort and Cohen decisions, could morph into a tsunami.
If so, Seoul will learn the old American adage: “don’t put all of your eggs in one (Trump) basket.” In periodically visiting the corridors of Capitol Hill, where I worked for thirteen years, I have heard little word from Congressional staff of outreach from Seoul to the Democratic side of the aisle – or even to Republican offices – to seek long-term support for Seoul’s engagement policy – which was graphically only recently displayed in the heart-wrenching photos of divided Korean family reunions.
President Trump is known for his sudden reversals (as on Korea policy) and impulsive style of decision-making –as with the Comey firing last year. Washington is waiting with bated breath to see what response, if any, will follow the latest Manafort and Cohen developments.
But any dramatic overreaction, such as undertaken by Richard Nixon over four decades ago on one Saturday night, could prove a tipping point.
If that happens, has Seoul cultivated enough bipartisan support in the Congress and among the federal bureaucracy in the State Department and elsewhere to keep its engagement policy – which still depends on Washington’s acquiescence – on track?
That is the big question. And what would happen in the event of a Pence presidency? When then Congressman Pence was a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee a decade ago he was known to be very much a hard-liner on authoritarian regimes, especially those like Pyongyang which suppress religious freedom and human rights.
Have his attitudes changed? His decisions to bring Otto Warmbier’s father with him as a guest to the Winter Olympics in South Korea and to remain seated during the opening ceremony when the joint South-North team entered the stadium would indicate otherwise.
So a word of caution for South Korean policy makers: if you put all of your eggs in one basket, you run the risk of dropping that basket.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
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