One thing is clear to everybody who interacts with the U.S. foreign policy establishment these days: an unease about the future direction of relations between the U.S. and South Korea is extremely common.
At first glance, things look pretty good now. President Moon bestows lavish praise on President Trump and his policies towards North Korea, and goes to great length to maintain cooperation with the U.S. in all fields. Privately, some international trade experts even told me how much they were surprised by South Korea’s recent willingness to accommodate the demands of the Trump administration over trade policy – the experts claim most countries behave quite differently.
However, the concerns, so common in Washington, seem to be well-founded. It is true that President Moon does not want a crisis in his country’s relations with the U.S., and is willing to make significant concessions just to eliminate all possible sources of petty tensions. However, objectively speaking, North Korean and the United States might be on a collision course right now. This reflects the objective gap between the national interests of two allied countries when it comes to dealing with North Korea.
For the U.S. top leaders, North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is, essentially, the only major reason why they should pay much attention to North Korea – otherwise a small and insignificant country far away. North Korea is about to become the third country in the world capable of obliterating any American downtown (after Russia and China), and there is little wonder that the U.S. leaders and public are not happy about it. Therefore, U.S. policy towards North Korea is almost completely centered on the nuclear issue.
If one has to overlook the North Korean nuclear program in order to maintain the status quo, then this is seen in Seoul as an acceptable price to pay.
For South Korea, the nukes are merely one of many problems created by the existence of ‘another Korea’ nearby – and not necessarily the most burning one. While in the long run, the North Korean nuclear and missile systems can be used to subdue or even conquer the South, the probability of this scenario is relatively small and it is clearly not something which is likely to happen in the near future.
Therefore, South Korea feels much less threatened by the North Korean nuclear program than one would expect. For South Korea, the major goal is to handle the North, to maintain peace, stability, and the status quo – while also paying lip service to the peaceful unification, denuclearization, and other wonderful (but hardly possible) things. If one has to overlook the North Korean nuclear program in order to maintain the status quo, then this is seen in Seoul as an acceptable price to pay.
Such a gap in perceptions and interests has existed since long ago, but under the stewardship of Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, the old contradictions became more pronounced.
‘FIRE AND FURY’ 2.0?
Donald Trump has made North Korea one of his major foreign policy agenda issues. Last year, at the heyday of the ‘maximum pressure policy,’ he frequently hinted at his willingness to use military force if North Korea would not accept his demand for denuclearization.
Given Donald Trump’s reputation, he was widely seen as a person who really could make good on these threats, ignoring the fact that any military strike against North Korea would likely provoke a counter-strike against greater Seoul.
Nobody can be sure whether such a reputation is well founded: it is possible that President Trump was bluffing. However, these threats were taken seriously by all concerned parties, including the Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul, and sent ROK decision-makers into a state of quiet panic. This is why the ROK assumed such a proactive role in the diplomatic efforts, hoping to initiate a détente between the U.S. and North Korea.
Now, the U.S.-DPRK deal looks increasingly unlikely. There is little doubt that North Korea never intended to surrender its nuclear weapons completely, but even significant arms reductions, which might have been possible few months ago, is unlikely in the new situation.
This means that the U.S. decision-makers, increasingly disappointed by Pyongyang’s unwillingness to deliver (and unwilling to make concessions themselves), are likely to eventually switch to the ‘fire and fury’ mood, resuming the maximum pressure policy. This is a frightening perspective for Seoul: the second edition of ‘maximum pressure’ will hardly deliver progress on the denuclearization front, but it will surely increase the likelihood of military confrontation, with South Korea positioned to suffer the most damage.
Indeed, from Seoul’s point of view, the immediate – and significant – threat to the ROK’s security comes nowadays not from North Korea, but from the United States. North Koreans might invade eventually, but this is not going to happen any time soon, while a U.S.-initiated military operation could result in the annihilation of Seoul’s downtown virtually next year. This new security threat determines the Moon administration’s behavior.
STAYING SEOUL’S ECONOMIC PLANS
Another problem created by the U.S. position is the impossibility of any significant increase in the volume of trade and other economic exchanges between the two Korean states.
South Korea’s ruling party badly wants more economic interaction with the North, even though such interaction is going to be heavily subsidized by the South Korean taxpayers. This is seen as a way to placate the North, reducing chances of confrontation while also encouraging the desirable internal changes within the DPRK.
From Seoul’s point of view, the immediate – and significant – threat to the ROK’s security comes nowadays not from North Korea, but from the United States.
However, the UN-approved sanctions regime makes nearly all economic interaction with North Korea impossible. Therefore, in order to realize the ambitious plans of Moon Jae-in and his people, the existing sanctions should be softened – ideally, rolled back to the level of 2016, before the introduction of sectoral sanctions.
This policy change, however, is actively opposed by the U.S., and this is vital, since the U.S. representatives can veto any change in the UN-endorsed sanctions regime. The U.S.’s unwillingness to open way to this much-coveted economic cooperation creates another potential source of unease in Seoul.
The background of President Moon and his advisors also influences their attitude towards U.S. and North Korea. These people are members of the ‘386 generation,’ the former student activists from the late 1980s, from the days when a peculiar mix of revolutionary Marxism and Korean nationalism dominated campus politics.
As time went by, their suspicions about the U.S. have subdued while their sympathy for the North Korean model diminished or disappeared completely, but some vestiges of their useful radicalism are still palpable. All things equal, these people tend to see the U.S. with more suspicion than their predecessors from the conservative administrations of the 2008-2017 period. Such ideology-driven tendencies are often grossly exaggerated by their right-wing opponents, but they exist nonetheless.
So far, Moon Jae-in’s way of handling the U.S. challenge has been simple: in a nutshell, he tries to be as sweet as possible. The Blue House is working hard to create and maintain a mood of exaggerated optimism.
No matter what is actually happening, Moon Jae-in administration officials loudly insist that the supposed ‘North Korean denuclearization’ is advancing successfully, while all problems are minor and fixable. Pro-government research centers and media are busy compiling and publicizing countless reports about wonders of the coming North-South cooperation – though most such publications conveniently overlook the sad reality of the sanctions regime which makes such plans almost impossible.
The goal of these optimism-manufacturing efforts is clear and simple: to create an environment where it would be more difficult for the U.S. to go back to the ‘maximum pressure’ policy which, indeed, would constitute a grave danger to the peace and stability in Korea. If the supposed ‘denuclearization process’ keeps moving ahead, as Seoul loudly insists, there will be no need for the U.S. to consider a return to a harsher stance.
An additional goal of this massive spin doctoring is to enforce the arguments in favour of sanctions relaxation, thus opening the way to the actual inter-Korean cooperation. This policy might be dishonest, but it makes perfect sense.
The talks about political progress and expected economic wonders, however, have their limits – especially because these talks are formed on shaky ground. There is a high chance that sooner or later – presumably, at some point next year – the US will return to the harsh stance. Such return, if executed, will provoke a crisis in the relations between U.S. and South Korea.
THE COMING CRISIS
So far, the Moon administration and pro-government media outlets in South Korea have worked hard to create a positive feeling towards Donald Trump’s North Korea policy. In the government-endorsed narrative, Donald Trump is usually depicted as a peace-loving leader who saw the opportunity to repair relations with North Korea and is working hard to achieve this goal.
To give credit where it is due, Moon Jae-in has been remarkably apt in handling Trump, using flattery and skillful manipulation to control the threats created by the U.S. President. His success is in marked contrast with the failure of many other world leaders, but, admittedly, Moon Jae-in’s stakes are also exceptionally high: Angela Merkel does not have to worry about Berlin’s downtown being devastated by an artillery barrage after some ill-thought actions by Trump.
However, the sweet talk is likely to evaporate overnight once the U.S. switches back to their hard line. The Moon administration will actively oppose such a switch and, if necessary, will do it openly and publicly, taking countermeasures and undermining the U.S. ability to use armed force. This makes perfect sense: the revival of the hard line in Washington will be an attempt to solve what is, above all, America’s problem – at the grave expense of its South Korean ally.
Given the proven disinclination of Donald Trump to take into account the interests and protests of U.S. allies, Seoul opposition to the hard line is likely to produce little impact on the actual situation. But it will deliver a serious blow to the U.S.-ROK alliance and the general state of relations between the two countries.
So, the fear of the coming confrontation between Washington and Seoul – common among policy planners – is well-founded. This confrontation might have been aggravated by the ideological differences and personal traits of the two countries’ leaders, but it is largely determined by the divergence of U.S. and ROK strategic interests.
Featured image: Blue House
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