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

In exploring South Korea’s transformation under Moon Jae-in, the discussions in Washington DC two weeks after Moon took office provide a useful starting point. Koreans and Americans exchanged thoughts and raised doubts on the prospects of ROK-US relations. Naturally, a major element was the effort by Koreans to report on recent developments and clarify uncertainties arising from Moon’s shifting policy directions. Another indisputable element was the skepticism expressed by Americans toward Moon’s personnel choices and agenda. 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. It is premature to draw conclusions on any of these possibilities, but the exchanges in DC can alert us to many themes likely to take center stage in the coming days.

How Should We Evaluate Moon Jae-in’s Start as President?

Moon took office well-prepared, offered assurances that people found more convincing than expected, showed a common-man’s touch, and found a receptive public ready to embrace him as the opposite of all that they had come to deplore in Park Geun-hye’s leadership. Even the way Moon reached out to the four powers most involved in peninsular affairs won praise. 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.

Moon is currently enjoying a post-election honeymoon—as others have had in a typical presidential cycle—but he only won 41 percent of the total vote, most of all from those who had voted for him in 2012. While he appears to have sufficient public support for leading domestic reform—strengthening the welfare state, shifting manufacturing jobs to IT industries, and tackling corruption—divisions over international relations are more pronounced. The challenge of changing direction toward North Korea is 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 and his new appointees—Suh Hoon at the National Intelligence Service and Kang Kyung-hwa at the Foreign Ministry—to find a path forward? Economic engagement would draw fierce criticism and even humanitarian engagement will not be so easy, although that is what is being dubbed “Moonshine Policy.” 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.

What Policies Are Likely to Be Pursued by Moon Jae-in?

Although Moon cannot put aside foreign relations while devoting entirely to domestic reforms, he is pressured to move on his agenda for transforming Korean society. One of his promises is to end the practice of irregular work in the public sector, which serves as a symbol of inequality in the workforce. Another is to close old, coal-fired power plants to combat serious, fine dust pollution. Further, he promised to reverse the previous administration’s decision on state-sanctioned history textbook, which drew intense criticism. These plans are broadly popular, and allow Moon to enjoy strong public support. So far, even the response from the conservative media has been relatively benign. Yet, two of Moon’s proposed moves could elicit a greater backlash: 1) revising the Constitution in line with the spirit of South Korea’s democratic movement; and 2) demanding more autonomy from the United States. Moon will face difficulties in passing legislation, which requires securing 180 of 300 votes in the National Assembly with new elections scheduled only in 2020. He may find, as Park did, that foreign policy initiatives are easier to implement than passing legislation on key domestic issues.

There was some similarity in the domestic campaign platforms of the candidates during the election, but little consensus exists on how to implement them. It may take another severe incident as the 1997 Asian financial crisis to galvanize the National Assembly to act. Moon may also find that public opinion limits what he can accomplish in foreign policy, given the high level of support for the ROK-US alliance or even the THAAD deployment (the approval rate of which reached 60 percent in recent polls.) Increasing concern about the threat from North Korea is another limiting factor. Yet, Washington, Beijing, and Seoul all could change the existing calculus through their actions. If Trump resorts to strong-arm tactics, for instance, he could duplicate the effect that Xi had in early 2016 when he disregarded South Korea’s pursuit of multilateral diplomacy. In turn, Xi could become more flexible now, waiting for a more promising opportunity to drive a wedge between the two allies. Finally, Kim Jong-un could take advantage of Moon’s desire for resuming inter-Korean talks to complicate US-ROK relations. Nevertheless, Moon cannot count on Xi or Kim to help him as the fallback position overwhelmingly favors the US alliance, even under Trump.

What Are the Prospects for Sino-ROK Relations?

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, including the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kumgang mountain tourist site. Beijing encourages a shift to “minimum deterrence,” welcomes a clean start with Seoul after the deep rut in bilateral relations from early 2016, and envisions new opportunities for regionalism under conditions acceptable for China. Beijing desires more contentious ROK-US relations and distrust between the ROK and Japan, as well as improved Sino-ROK relations through a resolution on THAAD, the issue on which Moon’s position remains unclear. Whereas complete removal of THAAD is improbable, there are arrangements that could appease China, which would save Xi’s face. One approach would be to install only a short-range radar. Another would be to limit the number of launchers. It is hard for China to back down on THAAD without gaining at least some substantial limitation on its presence. Yet, China has kept its retaliation within certain bounds: denying any government role in levying “implicit” economic sanctions against South Korea; refraining from taking overt diplomatic actions such as recalling the South Korean ambassador; and signaling to the new Moon administration its desire for a positive turn in relations, for instance, by allowing the Lotte website to reopen. Given the sharp downturn in relations following a period of significant rapport during the Park administration, China hopes to avoid repeating the same scenario with the Moon administration. As such, Beijing seeks a way for Moon to make concessions that will not be interpreted in South Korea as yielding to China’s heavy pressure.

China is eager to capitalize on Moon’s quest for autonomy in foreign policy, namely creating more distance from the United States and great power competition in East Asia. 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. The potential for ROK-US discord is sufficiently high that Beijing can bide its time and let divisions play out, taking a long-run strategy. Moon’s intention to focus on relations with North Korea, while reflecting his attempt to limit the involvement of great powers in Korean affairs, actually opens the door to greater Chinese leverage. After all, Moon is resisting the danger of Seoul being relegated to the third wheel in the ever-closer Washington-Tokyo nexus. In order to control the ROK’s own destiny, however, Moon needs Pyongyang to cooperate, which is highly unlikely in the absence of compelling pressure. Even if Moon is not planning on pivoting toward Beijing, the upshot of his distancing from Washington and Tokyo and drawing closer to Pyongyang is that Xi would have more room to advance his regional strategy.

How Will ROK-US Relations Unfold?

Amid increasing uncertainty surrounding the future of US-ROK alliance, DC audiences pay particular attention to their bilateral relations. They look back to the troubled years from 2001 to 2008 when the Bush administration’s ties to progressive governments stumbled from one crisis to another. The message in May was mixed; despite strong apprehension, the initial phone conversation went rather well, it was asserted, with an agreement on Pyongyang’s 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. Few are optimistic about the first summit between Moon and Trump in late June.  

What Should Be Expected from the Trump-Moon Summit?

There are three main concerns aired 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, majority opinion advocates not raising expectations too high: aiming for establishing good rapport instead of trying to resolve serious differences. The main objective should be to showcase a strong alliance, which will send a clear and coordinated message to North Korea and to others dealing with North Korea.

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. As “people’s president” promising to diverge from Park Geun-hye’s ways, 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, apart from seeking ways to extract money in return for talking about non-security matters. Some see Moon as unwilling to wait for a process to unfold and insistent that this be a substantive summit, during which he can win Washington’s support instead of acting unilaterally and in defiance of Seoul’s greatest ally. Yet, some DC commentators warn against rushing, 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. Moon needs to find a way for Trump to endorse some degree of Seoul’s engagement with Pyongyang, even if only limited to humanitarian assistance, by standing with Trump on tougher sanctions and deterrence. It will be challenging to work out the details of balancing engagement and pressure with Trump, who is not informed about such complexities, and to convince Trump to share authority in dealing with North Korea, as he is disinclined to cede leadership on any given issue.

Given these challenges, the aftermath of the Moon-Trump summit could be problematic. Even if Moon does not take too seriously what Trump says, the South Korean media could raise issue with his offensive remarks, including those made in the past, making Moon look weak. Notably, KORUS FTA is likely to be on Trump’s mind, and the best that can be expected is to set up a process for its reexamination—an outcome that could be construed as Moon having yielded. Trump’s economic objective is to bring jobs home and cut trade deficits in goods through bilateral negotiations, while Moon’s is about economic democratization through further integration with the global economy. Americans seek greater transparency regarding currency interventions, suspecting official exchange rate distortions, as well as barriers to South 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.

Many DC discussants have a low opinion of Trump and warn that his way of conducting diplomacy cannot be divorced from his business interests as well as preoccupation with public image and rhetoric of creating job—however ill-informed. Even though Korean automobile exports to the United States have risen rapidly before the effects of KORUS FTA were felt and many are now produced in the United States, Trump is likely to attribute the bilateral trade deficit to KORUS FTA. He may even unilaterally announce that the United States is withdrawing from the FTA, rather than searching for ways to implement it fully, such as requesting permits for US law firms to have majority ownership in Korea. Many would sympathize with Trump’s call to fully implement the FTA, perhaps apart from the auto industry, which seeks more. Arguments that KORUS FTA has kept US exports from dipping the way other countries’ exports have in the past few years or that the US trade deficit has begun to decline do not appear to register with Trump.

Despite widespread concern, many expect the summit to proceed without serious drama. Some point to Moon’s time as a leader in the National Assembly when he led his party toward the center. Others cite a recent phone call with Abe, when he reaffirmed that now is not the time for dialogue with North Korea. Still others pointed to jobs in the United States from South Korean investments, such as a KIA factory in Georgia and an ongoing Hyundai Motors investment, which could be showcased in a media blitz prior to the summit.  Abe’s model, highlighting jobs in states—which Trump regards as key—can be followed. Dissenters warned, however, that given Moon’s mandate to crack down on the chaebol and corruption, he may not be able to follow Abe’s example. This may apply to imports of LNG from US shale, which South Korean businesses resist. Trump may not see it as a way to boost jobs even if it narrowed the trade deficit.

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 in regards to Seoul’s desire for reconnecting with 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. Moon has already allowed NGOs to resume contacts with the North, even though he has so far avoided more sensitive initiatives such as reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Given these arguments, Moon and Trump are urged to stick to the basic message that the alliance is intact and that there is no Sino-US G2 that marginalizes Seoul. Military solidarity can be justifiably stressed, perhaps with a gift to Trump of increased arms purchases by Seoul. If Trump were to accept an invitation to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics, his image would be improved, but his appearance would still be a long-shot due to his increasing unpopularity, which has prevented him from widely appearing in the public, both abroad and at home. Many suggest that the best strategy for the summit would be to lower expectations and concentrate on avoiding the worst-case scenarios by shifting attention to hopes for a future cooperative process.

Another issue raised in the exchanges on the Moon-Trump summit is how this one meeting fits into the sequence of summits, including the upcoming G20 summit between Moon and Xi, and another between Moon and Putin. It would be short-sighted to treat the Moon-Trump summit as a “one-off.” Moon will seek outcomes conducive to multilateral diplomacy, knowing what Xi will be expecting in order to reset Sino-ROK relations. Moon may already be looking for a face-saving way to get Xi to stand down on THAAD, such as agreeing to put it before the National Assembly or to limit the number of launchers and the distance of the radars. In fact, Moon has already expressed disappointment over the number of launchers introduced into South Korea without his knowledge. There was some discussion that Moon may follow European leaders and accept some distance from the United States, a decision that would be welcomed by China. Yet, this was treated as a last resort in case of an unsuccessful summit with Trump. It is much harder for Moon to do this than Merkel or Macron, for several reasons: 1) he has no partners in Asia with whom to pursue a common cause; 2) China is suspect for its ties to North Korea and ill treatment of South Korea, especially in 2016-17; 3) the US-ROK alliance is too important for Seoul to risk it; and 4) weakening of Seoul’s position relative to that of Tokyo could alter trilateral dynamics. Given the vindictive nature of Trump, defying him is best done with a solid back-up agenda.

Moon may find increased US pressure to boost trilateral ties with Tokyo. There is no sign of Japanese flexibility on the “comfort women” issue, which Moon seeks to reopen. Tokyo is determined to stick to the agreement, which declared the resolution “final and irreversible,” and Washington is bound to reject any history-related objections to defense cooperation. Abe has already forged his relationship with Trump, preempting any South Korean leader from framing the narrative. Even Xi has undermined South Korea’s historiography in his discussions with Trump—namely, that South Korea was a part of China—and Moon would be best advised to concentrate on countering Xi’s story and saving energy from stirring up the hornet’s nest of Japan-South Korean relations. By the time Moon meets Trump, the US review of North Korea policy may have already set the course for strengthening GSOMIA—not weakening it as some in Seoul desire—and expanding joint missile defenses. Pressure on Moon to accept the growing weight of US-Japan relations as well as trilateralism could pose a problem at the summit, which will require tact from both sides. Given the numerous sensitive issues, joint announcement following the summit should entail short statements and limit the number of questions, in order to avoid any misgivings in the media that could damage the desired public image.

The most fundamental issue raised is how much do Trump and Moon want to avoid open disagreement and convey the impression that relations between the two allies remain strong. In the case of Trump, one cannot presume that he prioritizes existing alliance relations, unlike previous US presidents. He styles himself as a provocateur, disruptive of the status quo, which, in his warped thinking, unfairly uses the United States. He is not one to follow diplomatic guidance to proceed with a light, positive touch. In addition, Moon may not be eager to please Trump, since his campaign and diplomacy with China is headed in a different direction. Should North Korea make a statement through a missile or nuclear test, Trump and Moon would find more reasons to show solidarity, but ambiguous signs from Pyongyang may complicate the summit. As Trump reflects on how much cooperation he is getting from China—following the June 2 agreement on some new UN Security Council sanctions—he may be unconcerned about increasing ROK-Chinese cooperation, even if it includes overtures to Pyongyang. This makes the summit less predictable than earlier US-ROK ones, but the odds of a troubled outcome appear greater for the moment.

Two themes appear to draw little attention. First, the topic of human rights in North Korea is not pressed as hard by Moon or Trump than by their predecessors. The international coalition focused on this issue, forged through painstaking efforts at the UN, is likely to suffer neglect, as Moon is concerned largely about human rights issues in South Korea and Trump is disinterested in human rights objectives in US foreign policy. Second, the military option on North Korea—namely, a preemptive strike—appears no longer pertinent. Moon may acquiesce to some types of pressure on the North while taking preemption fully off the table. Emphasis is placed on the right mix of pressure and engagement to try to change Pyongyang’s behavior while retaining working relations between Seoul and Washington. There is consensus that this is bound to be one of the most significant ROK-US summits because of the stakes raised by North Korea, the complexities of great power diplomacy, and the chasm between the thinking of the two recently inaugurated presidents, each still short of staff to set a desired, new policy agenda.   

Opinions Diverge on Path Forward

Some in Washington also advocate a policy of pressure and engagement in tandem, warning that Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” appears to be sequential, dependent on China’s cooperation, and similar to Obama’s path of “strategic patience.” Trump’s policy claims to put more priority on this issue and to do more to get China’s attention, but has little chance of success. Some support a freeze instead—recognizing that China will not act, that there is no viable military option, and that limiting further progress on Pyongyang’s proliferation is important. Some call for urgent talks before the North tests an ICBM, accepting a limited North Korean nuclear deterrence while preventing the risk of Pyongyang-led proliferation among terrorist groups. They argue that North Korea will be deterred because the regime would not survive any retaliatory attacks if it ever used nuclear weapons. Further, the fact that there is no ICBM will give some confidence to South Korea and Japan that the United States would not abandon them to save itself. Under these observations, Trump should acknowledge that Moon is on the right track, approach Pyongyang for talks, and be prepared for a lengthy and even grueling process toward eventual denuclearization.

Others, however, argue that the price demanded by Pyongyang for returning to negotiation is too high and that the freeze would be destabilizing as it may trigger Japan to go nuclear, disillusioned by Washington’s compromise. In addition, there is scant optimism that Trump and Moon could trust each other to proceed in this manner, although some thought that they could agree on principles to strengthen the alliance and set some contours for how to tackle these challenges. What is clear is that in the absence of a joint approach, the alliance would suffer significant damages, to the delight of Pyongyang and Beijing.

Some point out that US actions in 1994 (when Congress balked at the terms for the Agreed Framework) and 2011 (when the Libyan regime was overthrown despite agreeing to abandon a nuclear weapons program in 2003) have left North Korea in need of reassurance of regime survival. Many in Seoul believe that while providing such guarantees would be difficult, it has promise to be transformative. Once a process of trust-building proceeds in earnest, it has a good chance to succeed. Nevertheless, opponents argue that Washington cannot support the survival of a regime that is so demonized, and that a trust-building process between two entities so fundamentally opposed to each other is hardly imaginable.

As the summit approaches, there are calls to keep the alliance strong to prevent North Korea from capitalizing on the divide, and to stick to principles that have proven their value, some of which Moon appears to be questioning. During this transition period, the alliance needs reaffirmation, but DC audiences wonder how this might be possible given the perceivable gap in policy directions pursued by both administrations, particularly as regards North Korea. As General Mattis recently stated, North Korea is the No. 1 threat to the United States and its allies—a more serious warning than before. It has weapons of mass destruction, and is not afraid to use them. Yet, the kinds of proposals many attribute to Moon are seen as weakening deterrence and feeding the North’s goal of unification by military means. Scaling back joint exercises would reduce readiness. The transfer of wartime operational control would risk South Korea’s safety even further. Engagement would be prone to benefitting the North Korean elite and military without altering the regime’s behavior meaningfully or improving the lives of ordinary people. Any further delay in THAAD would be a step backward for the defense of South Korea and a capitulation to China and Russia that they can intervene in Seoul’s decision-making. As doubts cloud over the prospects of Moon’s stated objectives, many emphasize the importance of finding common ground while keeping ROK-US alliance solid. Moon faces a significant dilemma as the summit approaches.