Amid increasing uncertainties in Sino-US relations and Japan-South Korea relations, the late spring of 2017 prioritized US-ROK relations. After Moon Jae-in was elected as president, Seoul-watchers followed closely his policy and personnel decisions. In particular, they focused on their implications for US-ROK relations, as Moon awaits his first summit with Donald Trump, whose policies toward both North and South Korea remain unusually unclear after five months in office. This Special Forum covers the weeks leading up to their summit, and the concerns that were raised: 1) fear in Seoul of a US preemptive attack on the North, as a dangerous move that could unleash devastation in South Korea; 2) fear in Seoul of a G2 understanding between the United States and China over North Korea, which could leave South Korea marginalized; 3) fear in Seoul of US demands inconsistent with the wishes of South Koreans as expressed in the May 9 election; 4) fear in Washington of Moon’s policies and personnel choices, which signal a change in strategy toward North Korea that is incompatible with Washington’s objectives; 5) fear in Washington of Moon’s tilt toward China, supporting its call for “dual suspensions” and other paths short of denuclearization; and 6) fear everywhere of a “train wreck” at the Trump-Moon summit, due to a sharp gap in thinking about North Korea and China.  

Three symbols represent the uncertainty shadowing US-ROK relations, each involving a third country. The first is the historical symbol of the “Sunshine Policy,” which stands for unconditional engagement with North Korea. While Moon highlights that certain conditions must be met before any form of engagement is initiated, the memories of troubled US-ROK relations under Roh Moo-hyun—for whom Moon was the chief of staff—are hard to dispel. The second is THAAD, the missile defense system which in 2016 became the focus of a zero-sum tug-of-war between Beijing and Washington. It is not clear how Moon could split the difference on a vital strategic concern of both states. Third, there remains the issue of the “comfort women,” which continues to disrupt relations between South Korea and Japan and is once again being raised by Moon despite the December 2016 agreement, strongly urged by the United States. The Special Forum presents perspectives on each of these three themes, reflecting the debate in Seoul and Washington and depicting how the think tank community is anticipating US-ROK relations to unfold.

The Moon-Trump summit would set the contours for Moon’s foreign policy ahead. The first step would be to clarify shared alliance objectives and the degree to which Moon’s subsequent moves toward Pyongyang, Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow would be in sync with US foreign policy. Few doubt that this would be one of the more momentous US-ROK summits—under significant pressure as North Korea’s potential to threaten the continental United States with an ICBM nuclear strike increases, and as China and Russia’s responses to US missile defense systems in the region intensifies. Further, Trump’s reckless rhetoric and Moon’s campaign promises raise doubts within the US policy-watching community. Given South Korea’s status at the crossroads of great power relations in Northeast Asia, the summit looms as a geopolitical test at a time of growing uncertainty between cooperation and confrontation.

Lee Seong-hyon, Moon Jae-in’s Foreign Policy & Roh Moo-hyun’s Shadow

The first article explains that policy coherence has yet to happen in Moon’s recently-formed administration. The main discord is not about national interests, but more ideological and philosophical, regarding South Korea’s position in the ROK-US alliance matrix and the question of how to relate to North Korea, both an existential “adversary” and an estranged “brother.” Lee Seong-hyon warns that Moon’s presidency may produce friction with Seoul’s traditional ally over an array of items, including divergent strategies on dealing with Pyongyang, the FTA, and cost-sharing in hosting the American military in South Korea, including the THAAD installation. Moon’s post-election “honeymoon” with the Korean public gives him the necessary political ammunition to carry out a raft of reforms he envisions toward creating a “strong and peaceful Korea,” but on foreign policy, his mandate is less clear.

On North Korea, Moon’s publicly stated recipe is a mix of carrots and sticks: adding pressure on the nuclear issue while resuming economic ties. The United States is interested in knowing how closely the Moon government is inheriting the “Sunshine Policy” from his progressive predecessors. Moon believes the North Korean issue is basically an inter-Korean issue and wants to take the lead in shaping international discussions. His advisors hold the view that improvement in inter-Korean relations early in new administration will strengthen Seoul’s standing in multilateral negotiations regarding Pyongyang. In the 40 days since his inauguration, Moon unleashed a slew of conciliatory overtures toward North Korea, a possible indication that the “independence faction,” not “alliance faction,” is winning in gaining his ear.

Lee provides a short profile of six officials who fill key positions, many of whom served Moon’s predecessors in formulating and implementing the “Sunshine Policy.” Yet, Lee acknowledges that during the campaign and after winning the election, Moon emphasized Seoul’s ties with Washington as the bedrock of his foreign policy. For instance, immediately after the election, Moon said in his phone conversation with Trump that the US-ROK alliance was "the basis of our diplomatic and security policy." Lee notes, however, that many in the administration see the alliance as an unfair political device to “intervene” in Seoul’s foreign affairs, whether in its relations with Pyongyang, Beijing, or Tokyo. The THAAD decision is also seen as reflecting US unilateralism because its deployment was hurriedly carried out days before the presidential election. As a candidate, Moon called for a delay in THAAD deployment, but his position remains largely unclear.

Moon’s opponents, Lee adds, have long marketed a public narrative that he was a "sympathizer" of North Korea and would adopt a "soft" approach. They expressed misgivings that he would undermine the current UN sanctions by unconditionally engaging Pyongyang. They also highlighted that Moon formerly served as chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, who once declared he would not "kowtow to the Americans." This framing war against Moon is not over yet and will haunt him throughout his administration.

Moon wants to play a balancing role between the regional powers. Progressives are Moon’s main supporters, and they tend to be more critical of US policy, especially toward North Korea. Thus, Moon has a double mission of keeping his progressive support base while simultaneously avoiding alienating the conservatives. Lee warns this could lead to incoherency, as China supports Moon’s drive for dialogue with North Korea, while Washington seeks to strengthen sanctions.

THAAD has gone beyond a military issue and become a political symbol. China sees it as a test of its growing sphere of influence in South Korea, while the United States sees it as a test of the alliance’s strength. Moon’s advisors indicate that THAAD is where Seoul and Washington may differ the most. Seoul takes issue with the known limited technical utility of THAAD, including its inability to distinguish decoy missiles and its high expense. This is relevant because experts generally agree that South Korea needs three to four THAAD units, while the United States has deployed one. The cost of additional deployments, if they proceed, would be expected to be borne by South Korea. The regional security aspect of THAAD is also problematic. Under these circumstances, Lee urges a carefully staged summit during which Moon will not say anything that will surprise Washington and the details of more sensitive issues will be dealt with discretely by officials.

Editorial Staff, The ROK-US Summit: Divide in the South Korean Media

As the summit between newly elected Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump draws closer, South Korean newspapers are sharply divided over Moon’s policy posture, its potential impact on relations with the United States and China, as well as the prospects of revising Seoul’s approach to North Korea, which may be at odds with the US approach. Of the six major daily newspapers, two strongly endorsed the new course anticipated from the Moon administration, while others resisted. On both sides, some expected a “train wreck” in the making. Others appealed for a limited agenda focusing on a process to coordinate approaches rather than open acknowledgement of differences that could endanger ties. Progressives sought assertiveness, conservatives sought caution.

The analysis of newspaper reports shows that thinking among South Korean progressives clashes with prevailing views in the United States on the most fundamental forces influencing the crisis over North Korea: the North’s goals and reasons for its intensified provocations; China’s willingness to cooperate to achieve an enduring, peaceful outcome beneficial to the South; US motives and the degree to which they contradict the South’s aims; the reason that sanctions to date have not worked to stop the North’s nuclear and missile provocations; and the promise of engagement for diminishing the North’s aggressive behavior. While the debate often focuses on narrower matters—THAAD deployment and the price of a deal to freeze the North’s testing—basic premises about geopolitical and national identity issues lie at their root. As Moon prepares to meet with Trump in Washington at the end of June and then with Xi in Germany at the G20 meetings, questions abound over how he will handle the talks such that neither Trump nor Xi would react harshly on Seoul’s decisions related to North Korea, THAAD, trilateralism with Japan, and other matters. Earlier, many downplayed the challenge through assumptions that China and the United States share common interests in denuclearizing North Korea and maintaining peace in Northeast Asia. In 2016, however, as Washington took the threat from Pyongyang more seriously and pressed to deploy THAAD, for which Beijing retaliated against South Korea, the gap became unmistakable. In 2017, amid confusion about US policy, the gap is still there.

US rebalancing and China’s counter-balancing have been the key elements in transforming geopolitics in Asia. Many in South Korea treat their conflict as inevitable—inherent to the power shift—and see China as a largely reactive force. In particular, China is unwilling to seek consensus or lead in response to North Korea’s growing threats. In this perspective, South Korea is a victim, stripped of power to determine its own fate and caught in between two powers, evident from the case of THAAD.

The main thrust of progressive coverage in South Korea is to criticize US thinking on aspects of regional security, while conservatives warn instead about China’s desire to create internal division in South Korea. Indeed, conservatives responded to the murder of Otto Warmbier with more urgent appeals for Moon to consider the international atmosphere and slow the process of seeking inter-Korean rapprochement. Given the upcoming summit between Moon and Trump, and their divergent views on how best to deal with North Korea—conditional engagement on one side and maximum pressure on another—the student’s death makes it more difficult for Moon to persuade Trump to take a softer approach on North Korea. Many warn concerning the danger of a troubled summit between Moon and Trump, arguing that both leaders are unprepared to carefully manage the alliance. There is also growing distrust as each side worry that the other might damage its national security, at a time of heightened threat of war.

South Korean progressive publications since Moon’s inauguration convey a tone of guarded optimism, centered on assumptions about the limited degree of Sino-US competition and the extensive room for diplomatic initiatives by a middle power. The premise is that Seoul need not make a choice, neither sacrificing relations with its ally nor foregoing good opportunities to strengthen cooperation with China. Nevertheless, the hurdle of the Moon-Trump summit looms as the critical first step in this agenda.

Lee Myon Woo, Moon Jae-in’s “Two-track” Japan Policy: Prospects for Success

Moon Jae-in has announced a “two-track” approach toward Japan, meaning that the administration will separate its handling of the “comfort woman” and other history-related issues from non-history matters such as economic and security issues. This improves the prospects for finding common ground with Japan on some of South Korea’s high priority national interests, but given diminishing perceptions of mutual necessity and the pervasive controversy surrounding the “comfort women” issue, some are not optimistic. Based on these challenges in South Korea-Japan relationship, this article considers conditions for making Moon’s “two-track” Japan policy successful.

A particularly formidable obstacle is China’s intention to widen the divide between Seoul and Tokyo. Lee Myon Won finds that the North’s nuclear and missile development are not perceived as a threat in China, which may mean that China’s aim is not only to protest against the deployment of THAAD, but also to oblige the South to follow its directions and, ultimately, split away from its ally and China’s true threat, the United States. Exacerbating South Korea’s tensions with Japan by using the “history card” serves the purpose of breaking Seoul from the US-led trilateral alliance.

Another obstacle is the way South Koreans diverge from Japanese and Americans in their view of Japan’s modest defense moves. While US perceptions treat the strengthened defense of Japan as a realist response to the rising danger posed by North Korea and not an indicator of historical revisionism, South Koreans are more prone to connect Abe’s moves to a revival of nationalism in Japan.

Besides history-related issues such as the “comfort women,” fluctuations in South Korea-Japan relationship can be attributed to a perception gap between the two on the threats and the means needed to respond to them. Many South Koreans disagree with the general view that Japan’s increasing distrust of China largely followed from its excessively assertive behavior. In addition, while most Japanese respondents regard North Korea as a threat and prefer stronger measures against it, the Asan Institute indicated in one of its 2017 reports that the percentage of the South Korean respondents in favor of applying stronger sanctions against North Korea fell from 50.6% in February 2016 to 42.2% of September 2016, reflecting concerns that stronger measures would step up the North’s provocations.

In addition, Lee observes that South Korea and Japan’s perceived need for each other has been diminishing recently. Due to South Korea’s economic growth relative to Japan and the accompanied increase in the public’s self-esteem, few now see that Seoul needs Tokyo for economic and security objectives. As the environment surrounding the relationship deteriorated due to China’s offensive turn and North Korea’s insistence on nuclear and missile development, there are differences in how threatened South Korea and Japan are from these two forces and how they respond to them. The Japanese feel more threatened and are therefore more prone to respond by rebuilding its military capabilities.

Lastly, the differences in perception are somewhat widened as trust and friendliness felt for each other have been weakened. These factors make it harder to keep relations solid at a time when difficult decisions must be made. Indeed, Lee acknowledges that the “two-track” Japan policy requires patience to endure the challenges both at home and abroad. But given the present difficulties South Korea faces in economic and security spheres, the success of this policy is simply essential.

Editorial Staff, Synopsis: What Next? South Korean Politics, Policy, North Korea, and the US Alliance

On May 25, barely two weeks after the inauguration of Moon Jae-in, a panel in DC weighed what would follow. Along with a synopsis of the panel, we include observations from other exchanges in DC over the following month. This is a time when many view Seoul as at a crossroads: reluctant to follow Washington as closely (especially with Trump in charge); eager to find a new path forward with Pyongyang, particularly as Beijing applies unprecedented pressure to change course (with Moscow’s support); and tempted to press Tokyo anew over the “comfort women” issue despite realist appeals to step up trilateral defense ties. So far, Moon has won praise for how he reached out to the four powers facing the peninsula. Simply having a president again offered a respite after many months of turmoil and leadership vacuum. The mood returning to normal, but some warn of “gesture politics,” only giving a semblance of calm when the external and internal challenges remain monumental.

The challenge of changing direction toward North Korea was seen as most likely to arouse controversy. The North shows no signs of welcoming Moon’s overtures to renew engagement, and the international community is insistent on intensifying sanctions. What room is there for Moon to act? Economic engagement would draw fierce criticism and even humanitarian engagement will not be so easy. Even if an early summit appears highly unlikely, channels can be formed to convey goodwill, perhaps with an eye to the tenth anniversary of the second inter-Korean summit in October 2017. At the moment, however, no path toward reconciliation seems to be at all clear given Kim Jong-un’s defiance of all appeals to return to the negotiating table. That was a conclusion offered at the DC panel.

As for the Moon-Trump summit, caution was advised on both sides. The initial phone conversation went well, having reached an agreement on denuclearization as the final goal. Yet, at least four issues face contentious differences: 1) dealing with North Korea; 2) trade and the reopening of KORUS FTA; 3) implementing the THAAD agreement; and 4) military burden-sharing and the status of Seoul’s wartime operational control. If Trump resorts to strong-arm tactics, he could duplicate the effect that Xi had in early 2016 when he disregarded South Korea’s pursuit of multilateral diplomacy.

In addition to the above-mentioned differences, there are three main concerns about the forthcoming summit. First, given Moon’s campaign rhetoric and the tendency to view him through the prism of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, many are concerned that substantive discussions of his agenda will alarm the US side, leading to a considerable downturn in bilateral relations. Second, as witnessed during Trump’s disastrous summit with allies in Europe, many fear that he could unsettle another ally, raising highly controversial issues including unfair trade and freeloading on US defense spending. Third, similar to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago summits with Abe and Xi, others worry that Moon’s visit could be recalled as pro forma, but of little substantive significance. Given these concerns, most advocate not raising expectations too high: aiming for establishing good rapport instead of trying to resolve serious differences.  

If agreement on how to deal with North Korea is problematic, so too is agreement on trade and revision of KORUS FTA. Trumponomics is about bringing jobs home and cutting trade deficits in goods without multilateral agreements, while Jaenomics is about economic democratization and further integration with the global economy. Americans seek greater transparency regarding currency interventions, suspecting official exchange rate distortions. They may also seek barriers to Korean exports of autos and automobile parts. South Koreans may agree to reducing the trade imbalance through imports of US shale and gas and placing more investment in auto plants in the United States, but as part of updating and not revising KORUS FTA. Finding common ground to keep relations on course would requiring significant effort and compromise.

The preference for a get-acquainted summit of limited substance rested on various arguments. First, both the South Korean and the US teams are not yet fully staffed to deal with substantive issues. Second, both Moon and Trump aspire to demonstrate leadership, which could negatively influence summit, as both adopt obstinate attitudes particularly regarding how to respond to Pyongyang. Third, even if an agreement is reached on tightening sanctions and closing North Korean embassies as counter-measures, resuming humanitarian assistance could open the floodgates for others to offer support to the regime without the necessary controls. Fourth, if Moon is considering pulling back on deterrence, such as on THAAD or joint military exercises with the United States, many would be skeptical as to whether such “de-escalation” would prove productive with Kim Jong-un. Under these circumstances, treating the summit as a “one-off” incident would be short-sighted.

The problem with this advice, however, is that Moon is seeking an outcome beyond a mere confirmation of Washington’s commitment to Seoul’s security in the face of Pyongyang’s increasing threat. At the same time, Trump cannot be programmed to follow the script of an uneventful summit to reaffirm relations. Moon is looking for some symbolic recognition of autonomy, equality, and Seoul’s voice in peninsular matters. He seeks to take the lead rather than defer to Washington and Beijing, though there is scant prospect of Pyongyang allowing him that opportunity. Given such challenges, many warn against rushing during the summit, citing the models of Abe and Xi, who concentrated on the building personal ties with Trump. Moreover, they stress that Moon’s entire foreign agenda would be easier to pursue if the Korean public—highly supportive of the alliance—is reassured that the alliance is not being threatened.

China clearly regards Moon’s election as a positive development both for bilateral ties and a shift in Seoul’s policy toward North Korea, which is more in line with China’s position, promoting dialogue and easing pressure as well as renewing economic ties. Beijing encourages Seoul’s shift toward “minimum deterrence,” welcoming a clean start after the deep rut in bilateral relations from early 2016 and envisioning new opportunities for regionalism under conditions acceptable for China. Beijing desires more contentious ROK-US relations and distrust between South Korea and Japan, as well as improved Sino-ROK relations. Aware of the prevalent victim mentality in South Korea, Beijing is inclined to keep a low enough profile so that it is not the one blamed, but rather, Washington.