South Korea’s domestic political turmoil is a bigger threat to its national security than US foreign policy under a Trump Presidency, Stephen Nagy writes in the third of his series looking at the Trump effect in East Asia.
North Korean belligerence in the form of nuclear and missile developments, a slowing Chinese economy, and the successful vote to impeach President Park have compromised the South Korean government’s ability to plan and implement social, political and security policy.
In this growingly severe geopolitical, domestic and economic environment, the rhetoric of President-elect Trump, if turned into action, would exacerbate the negative trends on the peninsula with a foreign policy agenda that seems to deviate from the bipartisan approach the US has had in regards to the peninsula in the past, one characterised by stalwart support for South Korea.
To illustrate, during the election Trump casually mentioned that he was willing to talk to North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un while at the same time suggesting that both South Korea and Japan should acquire nuclear weapons. This was proposed as a deterrent to North Korean nuclear brinksmanship and perceived Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea, South China Sea and in South Korean territorial waters into which Chinese vessels have ventured as recently as 2 November 2016. He has even suggested that South Korea should shoulder a larger burden of the costs associated with the US’ military presence in the country.
For South Korea, a deterioration of its geopolitical environment has already been felt under the Obama administration. First, the strategic patience advocated by the Obama administration has not prevented the North from engaging in provocative behaviour such as the testing of nuclear devices, submarine missile systems and various mid to long-distance missiles. Second, the placement of THAAD missile technology in South Korea in response to the North’s missile tests has resulted in punitive actions being taken against South Korean companies in China in the form of sudden inspections of South Korean companies and the cancellation of Hallyu (한류) popular culture events in mainland China. Both situations have been made worse by the slowdown in the economy of South Korea’s largest trading partner – China.
With these facts in mind, the South Korean government should be relieved by Trump’s post-election appointments and unorthodox salvos into the foreign policy arena. First, Trump’s cordial meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the latter’s planned visit to Pearl Harbour on 27-28 December 2016 and the pair’s meeting scheduled for late January 2017, after the presidential inauguration, strongly suggest that Trump is going to strengthen relationships with traditional allies including South Korea. The recent signing of an intelligence sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan is a strong sign that the US will continue to encourage bilateral cooperation between the two neighbours but also expand trilateral cooperation with the US, rather than a sign that Japan and South Korea are going it alone on defence and intelligence.
Second, the selection of Trump’s advisors on East Asia suggests a stronger stance towards China. Support for liberal democracies in the region, such as Taiwan, is also compelling evidence that a Trump Presidency will continue to support South Korea, which is perceived to be a victim of Chinese bullying and intransigence over the North’s belligerence as evidenced by the 25 April 2010 sinking of the Cheonan vessel, the bombardment of Yeonpyeong village on 23 November 2010, and the latest series of missile and nuclear tests.
Third and related to the above point, Trump’s recent telephone conversation with the President of Taiwan suggests that he will be taking a harder line on China and needs nations that can and will be willing partners in encouraging China to be more sensitive to the existing rules-based order that the US will reinforce. This counters suggestions that Trump will not value ideology in his diplomacy, he will and in so doing will need the support of liberal democratic states such as South Korea, Japan and others in the region.
Although not without stylistic differences, Trump’s choice of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as the American Ambassador to China and his enthusiasm for having retired military officials in prominent positions within the cabinet and as national security advisors, including potentially John Bolton as Deputy Secretary of State, should allay concerns in Seoul that US foreign policy is being outsourced to amateurs and hardcore China hawks. Rather, the takeaway message for Seoul is that the US under Trump will bolster its presence in East Asia and take harder-line positions on governments that Trump and his team perceive to be behaving assertively or playing unfairly in the areas of trade and economy.
If President Park is successfully impeached in the 60-day legal process currently underway and another election does take place, South Koreans themselves rather than Trump may tilt the current trends against their favour by electing a left-leaning parliament and president in the form of the Minjoo Party whose leader has vowed to openly oppose the installation of the THAAD defence system on South Korean soil.
Moreover, the election of another government that is openly hostile towards Japan may complicate or retract the serious progress South Korean and Japanese leaders have made on the Comfort Women Agreement, intelligence sharing on North Korea, and in encouraging trends towards stronger trilateral cooperation with the US.
North Korea will also be a key factor in Trump’s calculations going forward on South Korean and peninsular relations. Further brinkmanship by the North targeted at the US, especially the successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, may push the new administration to act unilaterally against the North in the form of an “overwhelming response” or prompt more intense collaboration between South Korea, the US and Japan.
While no crystal ball exists to predict Trump’s policies on the peninsula, we should be confident that under his leadership the US will not tolerate a North Korea that can project power to the continental US in any capacity. To realise this strategic objective the US will need to continue to rely on proximate partners in the region such as South Korea and Japan. Part of that strategy will necessitate forward deployed troops that can function alongside their South Korean and Japanese counterparts while at the same time investing in defence systems such as THAAD which are aimed at the North Korean missile threat.
As with Japan-US relations, national interests will be prioritised over pre-election rhetoric, which should leave South Koreans themselves less worried about Trump’s policies and more concerned about their own domestic politics and their impact on South Korea’s security situation.