Washington Insights, Vol. 7, No. 3

Trade overshadows security with human rights and democratization left on the sidelines in DC gatherings in the spring of 2019. The Hanoi summit left US-North Korean ties in limbo, reducing their salience in discussions as few new details emerged and the next steps remained difficult to fathom. In the Trump-Abe summits (two in the spring with as many as three more possible before the end of September), the dark cloud of trade hangs overhead even as upbeat reports have been issued. The main act awaits between Trump and Xi Jinping, possibly in a meeting at the G20 late in June, even if little news is emerging on what might unfold. What was left for those who are following developments closely was to anticipate the summitry of late June when Trump goes to Osaka and Seoul: With whom would Trump meet? What would be the main themes? Would any progress be made on trade, North Korea, regional security, or US bilateral relations with allies? Expectations remained low, even though Trump’s penchant for declaring success might resurface.

As for the overall tone of discourse, there is no doubt that optimism is in short supply in DC arenas. Topping the list of dark clouds is the Sino-US trade war, newly aggravated with little prospect of early resolution. Also casting an ominous shadow is the breakdown of diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang, confirming the dead-end nature of the path Trump had chosen, much in line with the prevailing expectations. Those who had found some measure of hope in regional diplomacy apart from the US have cause to be pessimistic as well. North-South diplomacy has nearly ground to a halt, leaving humanitarian food assistance as the residual prospect. Russo-Japanese diplomacy has reached an impasse too; despite Abe’s last-ditch compromise approach, the Russian side keeps moving the goal posts, e.g., in its demands for legitimation of Russian historical seizure of the islands and its vague linkage of weakening the US-Japan alliance to get a deal. Polarization of Northeast Asia is marching ahead with little room for maneuver for Seoul or Tokyo even on economic matters. The increasingly demanding US Huawei policies have made communications and control over 5G a divisive battleground.

Almost lost in the overall gloom is concern over the rapid deterioration of Japan-ROK relations.
One theme heard recently in DC is pushback from South Koreans and some Japanese against the extent of downsliding occurring. Few welcome what has transpired, but that does not mean that solutions are in sight. Indeed, alarm is widespread that however bad the situation is now, it could spiral further downward. Implementing the court cases with fines on Japanese companies would surely result in retaliation, which is anticipated to be severe. Already there has been spillover to business and security relations, as issues that normally would have been handled in a quiet and conciliatory manner are bursting into the open without the usual goodwill. From both sides one hears that the other is “emotional,” meaning that reason is not working. Yet, when professionals meet, civilian or military, relations are not affected by this bilateral shadow.

In searching for a breakthrough in Japan-ROK relations, innovative ideas are being raised for Seoul to freeze court proceedings while establishing a committee and Japan to agree to some sort of educational venture on history, which could be a face-saving way to allow Seoul to take the issue off the table. Trump could intervene as well, some suggest. Yet, any such proposals are not well received in Seoul, which is making the autonomy of its courts an essential marker of democratic identity. In Japan too, failure to stand up to South Korean disregard of a treaty and international law would contravene the growing sense of national identity as a country no longer passive in the world and intent on behaving as a great power in defense of its interests. Another approach is for Washington to press for military trilateralism and even to find ways to boost business trilateralism—rebuilding the two pillars of Japan-ROK ties recently damaged. 

As preparations advanced for Trump’s trip to Osaka and Seoul at the end of June, DC audiences discussed its objectives and prospects. They recalled his trip to South Korea in late 2017, where North Korea topped the agenda, while relations with Japan, China, and the Indo-Pacific figured in the talks, and bilateral items included trade and burden-sharing. This time around, while North Korea is still the priority, the balance has shifted from pressure to diplomacy, although both matter. In speaking to the National Assembly, Trump had dwelt on the evils of the North, but he had held aloft a vision of economic prosperity there. If he will resist Moon’s appeal to accelerate diplomacy, he may go further than before in opening the door to a “small deal” to put talks back on track without undermining the case for a “big deal” as the only way forward.

The big themes of the Trump summits in late June are expected to be the trade war with China, the related US pressure on South Korea to keep Huawei away from its 5G, and looming trade talks with Japan and Huawei’s role in Japan’s 5G. North Korea is expected to have a pro forma presence with little new to be said by Trump, Moon, and Abe. Security more broadly will have a place in the talks, but apart from its link to high-tech relations with China it looks to be secondary. That Trump will set the agenda, no matter how much Abe tries to do so as the G20 host, is obvious.

South Korean-US relations

Beneath the surface, the divisions between the two countries are becoming more difficult to control. The most obvious split is over North Korea with South Koreans calling for creative diplomacy, as if there is a way for the US to recalibrate its approach that would succeed in unlocking the door to energetic diplomacy and a path to denuclearization. Implied is the argument that the recent Trump approach has not offered enough to Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, South Koreans weigh whether nationalism or alliance should be given preference, being asked to choose for the first time due to Pyongyang’s turn to diplomacy. Recalling a history of other states controlling the fate of Koreans, some are hesitant to let the current opportunity to take charge slip away, as if Pyongyang is no longer a threat to South Korea and a new threat to the US and damage to the alliance would not leave the South exposed to blackmail or even attack. Given Trump’s soothing words about Kim Jong-un, Moon is unlikely to break openly with Trump, meaning that both will stress the positive.

A corollary to breaking with the US over North Korea is turning to China for a common posture on diplomacy. This flies in the face of North Koreans fear of China over the long run and Seoul’s own experience with Chinese pressure and sanctions after THAAD deployment. At the heart of the debate over China is an assessment of China’s motives: Would it respect Koreans being in charge of the diplomacy and reunification process? Would it be content to stay on the sidelines as it is now, once diplomacy gained momentum? How much does China prioritize North Korea’s denuclearization or does it insist on regional security transformation at odds with Seoul’s plans? Along with breaking with the US over North Korean diplomacy, boosting cooperation with China is potentially on the table, even in a period of worsening Sino-US tensions linked to a trade war. Yet, the issue is bound to play out in indirect ways with US pressure quietly resisted once more.

An early decision in this regard could come at the G20 summit, when Abe is expected to agree with Xi to more formal steps to bring Japan into the BRI and Moon will be under pressure to give his assent to joining the BRI. Perhaps, this could be coupled with agreement with Trump to be part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, as long as that was selective and could be seen as not joining in containing China. Some in the South Korean government see US policy as turning to containment and are trying to find a way to make clear that Seoul has closer economic ties to Beijing even if on security its alliance takes precedence, separating the two despite fear that neither Washington nor Beijing would accept such a dichotomy or honor Seoul’s balance.

South Korean officials are also showing distrust for the broader US regional strategy, including not only polarization with China, but also antagonism toward Russia, unprecedented closeness with Japan, and military reconfiguration with the Quad. Their queries about US motives reveal misunderstanding of the causes of tensions and the degree to which Cold War thinking drives US policy. Taking pride in nordpolitik and normalization with China as great accomplishments of South Korean diplomacy, they fear that Washington is seeking to push back and leave Seoul in the state of total dependency on one ally it had during the Cold War era. The Sino-US split and the US tilt toward Japan as well as the ROK-US divide over North Korean diplomacy are raising fundamental questions about Seoul being boxed into a corner and needing to act before long.

Seoul takes satisfaction that so far it has kept tensions with Washington from spreading beyond North Korean diplomacy and even that has been largely controlled. Seoul reached deals on KORUS FTA reform and host nation support that took sensitive issues off the table for now. it expects US preoccupation with the trade war with China, with auto imports from Germany and Japan, and with host nation support from others to be in the forefront for a while, giving Seoul room to avoid becoming Trump’s looming target. These are difficult conditions to navigate, and Trump is unpredictable; so much care needs to be taken at this sensitive time in regional affairs.

The reasoning driving the US push for more host-nation support—up 8 percent after the recent round of talks and expected in DC to rise more than that amount after a new round in 2019—is a sense that the US spends $5 billion on its forward presence in Korea while, even after falling from $24 to $18 billion, the US runs a trade deficit. This kind of thinking about burden-sharing and deficits prevails in the Trump administration. The deficit has been falling mainly due to LNG imports, for which South Korea is the world’s largest importer. Also assuaging US concern is the rising investment by South Korean companies in the US, including big upcoming projects.

On 5G the impression was that Seoul is watching the United Kingdom to see how its dispute with the US over Huawei is resolved. The ideal may be a compromise deal, allowing Huawei into peripheral but not core communications systems. This is not a time to push back hard against the US, given Trump’s vindictiveness and overall resentments toward Seoul, and moving fast to take a revised KORUS FTA and burden-sharing off the table as well as praising Trump for his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un rather than openly pressing him to do more has kept the mood positive for two years. Trump’s visit to Seoul in June is expected to sustain that impression.

US-North Korea relations

Five key questions arose at one seminar showcasing US-North Korean relations: 1) Why did the Hanoi summit fail? 2) Why is the terminology used to label the North Korean launches of May 9 confused? 3) Should we be concerned about riling North Korea during this diplomatic process? 4) What is the role of the Congress in the current stage? and 5) What do each of the six players in the region plan to do next? While there was no optimism that Kim Jong-un would denuclearize, there was also scant objection to pursuing diplomacy. Even if only a tiny chance existed for Kim to agree to this, why not try it if the cost of diplomacy is low, some argued. Others averred that with “maximum pressure” now being applied and possibly intensified, the diplomatic track is just a secondary factor in impacting Kim, but it is worth continuing. A third argument could be that, in light of disparate views among many states and raw memories of the alarm stoked by bellicose rhetoric in 2017, exploring the path of diplomacy is optimal for maximizing support from other regional actors. Continue talking but expect little to happen is the message.

Why did the Hanoi summit fail? This is a familiar question, asked over and over since the end of February. One popular answer is that Pyongyang was tested on its willingness to denuclearize, and its refusal doomed the meeting. Another answer is that Pyongyang had little interest in the issues raised prior to the summit, such as a peace declaration or a liaison office, proving that it is obsessed with sanctions, which Washington is intent on maintaining until intentions toward denuclearization are clear and serious steps are on the table. A third response is that, given the North’s lack of initiative in advancing compromise, the US could have tried to salvage the summit with a limited agreement on some sanctions relief (through the South Koreans and oil) in return for partial closure of the Yongbyon facilities, but that was not welcomed, weakening the sanctions regime before the North had made its intentions clear. A fourth answer is that, as in the Six-Party Talks, the North does not prepare well for diplomacy—it ignored the working level preparations, it did not have a Plan B when its proposal was not accepted, and it lacked a roadmap or diplomatic playbook. A fifth response is that Trump had lulled Kim Jong-un into complacency by the way he dealt at the Singapore summit and his comments thereafter, as if a vague statement about closing Yongbyon could suffice, as it had in the 2007 Joint Agreement. A final explanation is that both Trump and Kim needed a failure in Hanoi to satisfy hardliners who only gave qualified support for the talks in a lengthy process where compromise must take time.

Why is the terminology used to label the North Korean launches of May 9 confused? The short-range ballistic missile tests, which clearly violated UN Security Council resolutions, were called not ballistic, not long-range, but just rockets and projectiles, as if softening the wording would make it easier to avoid any need to condemn the North at the Security Council for violating sanctions, as had happened prior to 2018 when missiles of any type were fired. When in the 2012 Leap Day agreement, Pyongyang had insisted it was not firing a missile but just engaging in a space launch, that was rejected. Yet, desperate to keep diplomacy proceeding, Trump and Moon are only encouraging more provocations by refusing to take this one seriously. One may recall Abe’s desperation to keep diplomacy with Putin alive by ignoring what, at any earlier date, would have been called by the Japanese side violations of the spirit of the talks. Trump sent an earlier signal to Kim Jong-un along the same lines by reversing Treasury Department sanctions.

Should we be concerned about riling North Korea during this diplomatic process? Assuming that Kim is close to making a decision on denuclearization, one might avoid tilting the balance with more pressure on him. Yet, assuming that “maximum pressure” is what got his attention in the first place, one would be hesitant about not applying pressure when Kim has been warned of it if his moves crossed any red line. The DC audience appeared to be heavily on the side of applying pressure to avoid eroding sanctions. One commentator noted that, whether it is rhetoric or behavior, the North follows the practice of “tit-for-tat,” and that is the language it understands best. When a deal, such as the Moon-Kim Panmunjom Declaration is violated, as happened with missile tests that were inconsistent with promises to reduce military pressure, a response is not optional.

As Trump prepared to travel to Osaka and Seoul, the US continued to await a response from Kim Jong-un beyond his offer in Hanoi. It might offer some sort of sanctions waivers for more robust denuclearization. Biegun’s Stanford talk, which seemed forgotten after the Hanoi summit, is again cited. Thus, behind the demand for a “big deal” seems to be readiness for sanctions relief in stages. Once Kim Jong-un decides to sweeten his offer, Moon Jae-in could meet with him again or a Trump-Kim meeting might occur. Meanwhile, rumors of Xi Jinping going to Seoul before Osaka enlivened South Korean debates about Moon’s diplomatic role.

What is the role of the Congress in the current stage? Having imposed sanctions, Congress sees these as a means to make an impact. Yet, there is not a lot of room to impose additional sanctions on the North, leaving sanctions on China and Russia for alleged cheating on sanctions still a possibility. Another interest of Congress is to get more oversight by being briefed more fully. Yet, the body is divided, not so much by party line but by a split between those alarmed by the war rhetoric of 2017 and still wary of what might be on Trump’s mind if an impasse persists and those intent on doubling down on “maximum pressure.” A new resolution could find easy common ground, aiming to reinforce US alliances, but that only avoids the areas of split.

What do each of the six players in the region plan to do next? That question hovered over the discussion on the assumption that a third summit will likely take place but without the big deal Trump is seeking, opening the door to multilateral maneuvering. After engaging in a period of reflection, Pyongyang would likely avoid any big provocation and get by despite sanctions with some help from Beijing and Moscow. Seoul would persist in trying to give concessions to it, but Moon is likely to become further marginalized without much leeway. Beijing benefits from this environment, pleased that joint exercises are suspended and waiting for its opportunity. If Tokyo strives not to be left out but watches Seoul nervously and is not sure about Trump, for Moscow it is also a matter of avoiding marginalization but with less nervousness at an impasse. In the meantime, diplomacy is in poor shape: Trump is not one to listen to allies, trilateral ties are troubled, US relations with Beijing and Moscow do not lend themselves to serious talks on North Korea, and hopes rest on a bilateral summit deal as if the interests of the other four parties can be handled as an afterthought. Some doubt that multilateralism is so expendable.

China-South Korea relations

Since Moon traveled to China in December 2017, Sino-ROK relations have been in limbo—no longer in a freeze with barely disguised Chinese retaliation for the deployment of THAAD, but with continued economic pressure over Seoul only going as far as declaring the “three noes” but not removing THAAD. With US pressure mounting over 5G, China is preparing to apply its own pressure on behalf of Huawei. Seoul is in an untenable position. The situation is not much different regarding US calls to embrace the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, which raises the danger of China retaliating. Moon has launched the New Southern Policy toward South and Southeast Asia—covering much of the scope of FOIP—with the aim of expanding markets and Korean manufacturing as well as its influence. Washington may try to build on this overlap, but, unlike in the case of Japan-US relations, ROK concerns about China make this difficult, and large infrastructure projects are not under consideration. Seoul has not joined freedom of navigation operations or the US in criticizing militarization of the South China Sea, even if its language on a rules-based order suggests an indirect connection. Now that Xi Jinping will visit Seoul will the clash with the US over these themes come more into the open? Having gained by the THAAD retaliation in securing promised limits on South Korean security policy through the “three noes,” Xi may see a need to further pressure South Korean leadership at this juncture.   

Raising the profile of values

Although values have fallen in priority for the US, two ideas have recently been floated that could give them more heft in relations with Asian allies. One is to press Seoul harder to take its place in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, even joining what may be the first summit of the Quad at the UN General Assembly in September. ASEAN is not inclined to back values; the US is working around it, building a new coalition of the willing, but will Moon be interested? It seems very doubtful. The other is a joint commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII or, if it is easier, of the start of the postwar peace. Alternatively, the 70th anniversary of the San Francisco Peace Treaty could be chosen as a cause of reaffirmation of the US presence. Either way, it would require Seoul and Tokyo to recognize what they have in common, unlike the current state of their relationship. This is a reach, but DC exchanges dare to make a leap.

China’s values challenge drew attention in DC as well. More criticism could be heard about the way China is using all types of power to transform global governance, inserting its ideology into the mix. Recent Chinese oppression in Xinjiang is accompanied by wide-ranging diplomacy to keep this issue off the world’s agenda, going beyond a refusal to discuss human rights. Plans for an extradition law in Hong Kong that would allow Chinese courts to take jurisdiction of cases in ways that would undermine Hong Kong’s separate system have aroused demonstrations, but states are hesitant to incur Beijing’s wrath by making an issue of it. Sovereignty and democracy are other value-laden terms that figure into China’s challenge to the international community. If Trump is reluctant to respond with values, DC audiences are not, even suggesting a concerted effort to clarify ideological terms to rally states in response.


A seminar on regional leadership in the Indo-Pacific discussed the exchanges scheduled at Shangri-La. On the Japanese side, Abe’s achievements were highlighted, keeping Trump close (3 meetings in 3 months this spring) and finally getting Xi Jinping to upgrade relations. Abe is on track to become the longest serving prime minister and could even be chosen in 2021 for a fourth term. Such stable leadership has boosted Japan’s strategic influence in the region and contrasts sharply with the situation in many other advanced democracies, where social divisions have proven destabilizing. It is not just the personal tie of Abe and Trump, but institutionalized ties at all levels that are strengthening Japan-US relations and giving Japan the support it needs for such moves as filling the US vacuum in TPP to reach an agreement. Now, with US allies in search of reassurance, Japan has an opportunity to take further leadership roles. Most worrisome was Trump’s capricious diplomacy with Kim Jong-il, but Trump has swung back to Abe’s stance. 

Two puzzles were raised in the exchanges on Japan: Why is Trump relatively popular in policy circles? And why is Japan seriously considering closer cooperation with China on BRI? These are two seemingly conflicting positions. On the former, Trump’s hard line toward China has largely been welcome, leading to more need for Japan in the security sphere and causing China to try to counter by improving ties to Japan. Also, Democrats have generally been less trusted in Japan, raising more fears of abandonment of Japan and in pursuit of global governance. Rhetoric in the 2019 campaign does not offer reassurance in regard to US responsibility for global goods. On China, the impression is that a struggle is under way in the top leadership over BRI. This is playing out in a triangular context with the US, and when Trump meets the Emperor he will be judged for the respect he shows to the symbol of the country, as will Xi a month later when he meets the Emperor, as Japanese recall the disastrous visit of Jiang Zemin 20 years earlier when he offended national sensibilities with his conduct toward the Heisei Emperor. As Ambassador Kong prepares for his service in Tokyo with efforts to create a new image of China as champion of multilateralism and free trade and the innocent party in the trade war, Japanese have memories of Chinese behavior at odds with these appeals. Triangular dynamics are just gathering steam. 


Indian-US relations have also continued to grow closer in security under Trump, but they are not as close as US leaders have wanted. One explanation offered for Indian reluctance, as Modi prepares for his second term as president, is uncertainty about US reliability and seriousness about such moves as a Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Ties have improved, especially in response to the pressure China put on India in 2017, at the end of a decade of building pressure. In 2018 China took steps to assuage India, Xi may visit India this year, and India’s response to the 2019 BRI forum was much quieter than in 2017, although it still refused to participate. The growing Indian acceptance of trilateralism with the US and Japan and even the Quad, to some degree, has heartened the US side, but economic tensions remain, caused by protectionism on both sides. One new focus is on Indian oil imports from Iran and Venezuela, as well as the US sanctions on Iran and Russia, as India has scrambled to diversify its oil suppliers with support from the US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Given the trade trouble with the US and the security ties to counter China, some see a two-track approach that Modi will find unsustainable in his new term. Others see China pushing harder to strengthen the economic side, perhaps with RCEP talks succeeding by year end, while Trump’s behavior reinforces India’s desire for autonomy. The clash of civilizations rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, treating the West as superior as others talk of the Western liberal order, damages the US image. China’s claims to be showing the way to “Asian values” works to the US advantage, but the situation is in flux.