NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW
January 9, 2018
By William Pesek
Uphill race for Korean peace in Trump era
Moon must pursue talks despite the US president’s unpredictable outbursts
Moon Jae-in will not compete in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month, but South Korea’s leader faces an Olympian challenge of his own, balancing the competing whims of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
President Moon is already getting good technical marks, welcoming a team of athletes and a high-level delegation from the North to the winter games. There is even talk of both nations, which are still technically at war, marching into the opening ceremony together. Cue the heartstrings for a made-for-television moment few Olympiads have served up in decades.
But President Moon’s gamble risks alienating a vital audience: a highly skeptical White House.
The U.S. president’s default is bluster and confrontation. Whereas Moon favors olive branches, Trump skews toward “fire and fury” threats and whose-nuclear-button-is-bigger Twitter trolling of North Korean leader Kim. Never mind Moon, Trump often seems in direct conflict with himself. One day, he warns Seoul against rapprochement. The next, he takes credit for Pyongyang’s about-face and hints at joining the reunion.
Can Moon really draw the globe’s most isolated regime back to talks without provoking Trump’s ire? Here are three reasons why the odds of success are lower than many hope.
First, Trump is as much a wild card as Kim. Washington’s opening demand from Kim — scrapping the North’s nuclear program — is a non-starter. What motivates the Kim dynasty most is self-preservation. Having seen what happened after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi abandoned nuclear deterrence, Kim will cling to his arsenal at all costs. Nor has reneging on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal and a free-trade deal with South Korea earned Trump much clout as a trusted negotiating partner.
Moon’s outreach efforts stem from his time working for former President Roh Moo-hyun. During his 2003 to 2008 term, Roh sought to advance the “Sunshine Policy” championed by predecessor Kim Dae-jung. Moon, Roh’s chief secretary, saw first-hand the challenges of balancing detente with Washington’s often hardline stance. That proved challenging enough with then-President George W. Bush, never mind Trump, who derides Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and appears to dare Pyongyang to prove its nukes work.
Second, there is Trump’s economic nationalism. At this very moment, Moon’s team is in the thick of re-working a treaty Seoul thought was a done deal in March 2012, when both governments signed the Korea-U.S. trade agreement, known as KORUS. In April, Trump complained “we are getting destroyed in Korea,” pointing to a doubling of Washington’s trade deficit since 2012 as justification to reopen negotiations.
Trump’s zero-sum worldview leaves Seoul little hope for equitable terms. This president, after all, is hinting at ignoring World Trade Organization rules and scuttling the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. That puts the onus on Seoul to make all the concessions in sectors including autos, technology and agriculture.
Could Trump’s misgivings about Moon talking with Kim taint both today’s trade talks and future ties? Such risks cannot be ruled out, particularly as Moon is separately trying to mend fences with China’s Xi Jinping — another world leader whose policies could be on a collision course with Trump’s. Meanwhile, the Korean authorities reportedly bought dollars on the open market Monday in an apparent move to weaken the won, Asia’s best-performing currency last year. That could make Seoul’s economy a ready target for the next Trump Twitter rant.
Third, the White House is increasingly in crisis. Team Trump spent the last week swatting back at a new tell-all book whose title is inspired by the president’s heated Pyongyang rhetoric. The explosive reaction to Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” smacks of desperation as investigations close in on the president’s inner circle. As Trump looks to change the narrative and delight his base, North Korea could be an attractive target.
Making good on a threatened trade war with China might fit the bill. But there are quicker ways of pleasing the Trump voter. As Wolff argues, Trump recalls April 6 as the best day of his year-old presidency. The 59 Tomahawk missiles he fired at Syria that day won applause from around the globe — even from many of his critics in Washington. The advance of the Russia investigation in Washington must surely raise the odds of airstrikes on the Korean peninsula. What if Trump, say, attempted to shoot down Kim’s next missile launch? Any retaliation by Pyongyang would send Moon’s diplomats back to the drawing board and facing tough decisions about the Seoul-Washington alliance. China, which would surely have a thing or two to say about military action, would be an added headache for South Korea.
Still, Moon should indeed engage Kim’s team, both those competing for medals and those carrying official policy briefs. U.S. and Japanese officials are seeking reassurances that Moon’s outreach will not undermine United Nations sanctions. There is scope here for Team Moon and Team Trump to try a good cop/bad cop routine. As good-cop Moon resurrects the 1998-2008 Sunshine Policy and discusses carrots, Trump officials, along with Shinzo Abe’s Japan, could tend to the sticks. That might, in turn, pull Beijing into the mix to prod Pyongyang to behave, though China will be wary about being too strict for fear of creating openings at Kim’s court for Russia.
But playing a coherent long-game does not appear to be Trump’s best event. Perhaps Moon can pull out a huge diplomatic win, starting with events in Pyeongchang. Just do not hold your breath.