Moon Jae-in celebrates after winning the nomination as a presidential candidate of the Minjoo Party, during a national convention, in Seoul, South Korea, April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
With the election of Moon Jae-In to the presidency of South Korea, there is speculation that no less than the US-Korea alliance hangs in the balance. Reality is far less provocative: the partnership will muddle through. While the alliance is very likely headed for a period of rough waters, the coming instability will have less to do with President Moon’s policy agenda and more to do with President Trump’s inability to quietly negotiate cost-sharing measures between the two countries.
Mr. Moon comes to office with the stated aim of improving relations with Pyongyang and increasing interactions between South and North Korea. This sets US observers of Asia on edge. As the United States attempts to further isolate North Korea, a softer line on North Korea from South Korea may undercut these efforts, signaling to China that it need not strictly enforce international sanctions. But Mr. Moon’s proposals will be harder to accomplish in deed than they are in word.
One major proposal involves the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The complex, closed by South Korea in early 2017, matched South Korean business with North Korean labor. Its reopening is fraught with difficulties. First, it might put South Korea in violation of multiple resolutions passed by the UN Security Council aimed at isolating North Korea. Second, the South Korean government has acknowledged that the funds that flowed from South Korea to North Korea through the industrial park—more than $500 million from 2004 to 2016—may have directly funded North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
Moon also proposes to hold a summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. This is also unlikely to happen. North Korea may conduct its sixth nuclear test in Moon’s first weeks in office as it did to welcome former president Park Geun-Hye in 2013. During the campaign, Mr. Moon warned that such a test would lead to further isolation and a continued freeze in inter-Korean relations. This may very well suit the South Korean public. In public opinion polls, South Koreans look increasingly positive on taking a hardline in dealing with North Korea.
Mr. Moon’s policy goals aside, the South Korean public remains extraordinarily supportive of the US-Korea alliance despite its perceived inequalities. Of particular concern are costs of stationing US forces in Korea. Those sensitivities are now heightened for good reason.
On the 2016 campaign trail, then-candidate Trump repeatedly cited South Korea and Japan for not paying their fair share for the security commitment of the United States. This is wrongheaded. South Korea pays more than $800 million per year to the United States for its own defense—roughly 50% of the total costs. This is on par with Japan’s share of cost-sharing which Secretary Mattis recently referred to as a “model” on his recent trip to Asia.
But this mattered little to President Trump, who further suggested that South Korea pay $1 billion to the US for deploying the THAAD missile defense system. This created alarm in South Korea in the midst of its presidential campaign, which was only muted after National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster affirmed that the agreement stood as written, with the United States paying for THAAD’s deployment.
As damaging as this was to South Korean perceptions of the United States and President Trump, worse is still to come. The current agreement on cost-sharing for US bases runs through 2018 and will need to be renegotiated before it expires. This negotiation needs to be handled with care, just as it was in 2013. But if recent history has shown anything, it is that President Trump will be unable to negotiate a new cost-sharing agreement behind the scenes. Instead, Trump’s public statements about what South Korea should pay will infuriate an Seoul’s leadership and public alike and damage US interests in the process.
The US relationship with South Korea is one of the great success stories of the past 15 years of US foreign policy. South Korean perceptions of the US moved from a true low point in 2002 following massive anti-American protests to the currently strongest levels of public support in both countries since polling began tracking this. It has endured trying times, and neither the election of Moon Jae-In nor that of Donald Trump signal its demise. The alliance is built to contend with these periodic mismatches in governments and agendas. But its recent strength is built upon both sides recognizing the value of the partnership.
While Mr. Moon might not be the preferred president of some in the United States due to his softer line on North Korea, Mr. Trump is not the preferred president for many in South Korea. And yet, history and elections have brought together these two unlikely partners. But from Mr. Moon’s history in politics and his statements, it is clear that he understands the strength and value of South Korea’s partnership with the United States. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about President Trump’s view of South Korea. And it is this lack of understanding more than any Moon administration policy that signals trouble ahead for the US-Korea alliance.