Trump in Korea: where’s the policy?

An abundance of bluster and sound bites, but little by way of substance

Jeffrey Robertson

PHOTO: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Government and governance, International relations, Trump in Asia, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

9 November 2017

US policy for the Korean Peninsula appears capricious, and Trump’s visit will have done little to help South Korea see which way the wind is blowing, Jeffrey Robertson writes.

Weeks before Donald Trump’s state visit to Seoul, a visit to the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea was removed from the schedule – a strange decision considering long traditions of presidents casting steely stares across the DMZ. But at 7.43am on Trump’s second day, he took off in a Chinook for the DMZ. At 8.08am he turned back due to bad weather. Seoul officials were unfazed. Sudden, unscheduled, on-again, off-again arrangements privy only to insiders, and seemingly determined by which way the wind blows, reflects current US policy on Korean Peninsula affairs.

Trump’s visit to South Korea had no impact on the bilateral relationship. From a public, leadership, and policy perspective, it was largely a non-event.

In the public context, there was no impact. Trump is more disliked by the South Korean public than previous presidents. Yet, few people moved to the street. Anti-Trump demonstrators were young and vocal progressives. Pro-Trump demonstrators were older, equally vocal conservatives – many of them equally opposed to the current Moon administration as to North Korea.

Relatively speaking, the number of demonstrators for and against Trump were small in the context of Seoul street protests – essentially no larger than can be found at least once a month somewhere in central Seoul. Seoul’s democracy is, after all, built on a protest culture.

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Media reporting, and the wider public, stayed on similar tracks to previous presidential visits, commenting on the shorter length of Trump’s stay in South Korea (one night), compared to Japan and China (two nights) or Ivanka’s visit to Japan and her kimono-inspired outfit, and her no-show in Korea.

In the leadership context, there was also no impact. Trump was relatively diplomatic. Unexpected ad-libs, sudden off-the-cuff remarks, and social faux pas were kept to a minimum. Moon was demure and well prepared. He subtly played to the domestic audience with a state dinner involving victims of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery, served Korean traditional cuisine, and managed to include shrimp caught in territories disputed with Japan.

An interesting contrast can be seen in the Trump-Abe and Trump-Moon relationship. If Trump were the teacher in a middle-school classroom, Japan’s Abe would be at the front of the class complimenting the teacher, while South Korea’s Moon would be in the middle, hiding his head, planning his next move, and avoiding the teacher’s gaze. Both Trump and Moon played the right moves to avoid upheaval.

In the policy context, there was similarly no impact. Trump and Moon’s joint press conference repeated the same sound bites heard in Japan – South Korea would spend billions more on US weapons and its security would benefit from this. This includes the potential purchase of nuclear-powered submarines and extension of payloads for cruise missiles.

Significantly, the Korea-United States (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement (FTA) received no coverage. Already in discussions to review the agreement, it remains a highly controversial subject.

Trump’s address to South Korea’s National Assembly added little more. After a short review of his own achievements, Trump moved on to a revolving rhetorical frame highlighting and justifying a strong response to North Korea – human rights, individual freedoms, economic and social progress, unification of divided families, shared sacrifice between close allies, and the need to be strong and demonstrate resolve.

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He reiterated the need for North Korea to understand that it was dealing with a different, firmer, and more resolved administration (with three aircraft carriers nearby), yet at the same time left open a narrow gap for progress towards a diplomatic solution.

For the first time, Trump seemed to recognise South Korea in addressing the challenge of North Korea. From what most South Koreans have come to expect from Trump, the address was presidential – but it changed little.

In policy, Trump appears to play checkers – a simple, forceful, short, tactical game in which players react quid-pro-quo with uniform moves and limited variation. Policy planning appears centred on short-term benefit, rhetoric involves bluster and threats, and actions involve replaying the same moves – but with more force. The Trump administration is currently pushing primary and secondary economic sanctions, pressuring China to do more, pursuing, ‘back channel’ talks, signalling combat readiness, and cultivating “madman” unpredictability.

On the other hand, Moon appears to play baduk – a complex, subtle, long, strategic game in which players balance multiple tactical objectives while keeping track of strategic aims. Policy planning appears focused on the long-term, rhetoric accepts and balances differing positions, and actions involve creating, strengthening, and renewing moves. The Moon administration is currently maintaining firm resolve against conflict and escalation, signalling a willingness to play a role in reducing tension, and demonstrating long-term objectives for engagement.

That Trump’s visit was a non-event may be viewed as positive, given what could have occurred. But once the sound bites and colourful images recede, Korean peninsula analysts will again wake up and look at their Twitter feeds to realise that US Korean peninsula policy remains sudden, unscheduled, on-again, off-again, privy only to insiders, and seemingly determined by which way the wind blows.

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