Is Trump losing South Korea?

The following article by Jude Woodward, about South Korea’s election on 9 May, was originally published by New Cold

A significant initial impact of the crisis that Trump has whipped up over North Korea was to push security issues up the agenda in South Korean politics, aiding the US in speeding up the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) and boosting the poll ratings of the more pro-US candidate in the Presidential elections due on May. But Trump’s more recent statements about this key US Northeast Asian ally have been so casually insulting that they have led to an upsurge in anti-US sentiment as the elections draw closer.

An exclusive Oval Office interview with Reuters on Thursday 27 April, was widely flagged under headlines referring to Trump’s portentous warnings that ‘There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea’.

What was less widely reported in the West – but hit the headlines in South Korea – was the fact that he went on to suggest that he may ‘terminate’ the US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (known at KORUS), which he described as a ‘horrible deal’ and as ‘a Hillary Clinton disaster… that should’ve never been made’.

So far so not new; Trump has repeatedly put a question mark over all existing US trade deals, especially those with countries with which it runs a trade deficit. But when the interviewer asked when he would decide to renegotiate the agreement, he declared: ‘I am announcing it now’, threatening to unilaterally cancel it if the US could not get a ‘fair deal’. Announcing the renegotiation of a trade deal with a critical ally, and major trading partner, via an interview with Reuters may be par for the course for a US president that announces bombings on his personal twitter account; but this did not go down well in South Korea where the issues of the US military presence and its influence over South Korea’s security policy are already not universally popular to say the least.

But this was not the end of the blunders in Trump’s interview. He went on to say that he wanted South Korea to pay $1bn for the THAAD anti-missile system. This caused outrage, particularly as South Korea only agreed to host the system at all because of unrelenting US pressure, riding out both domestic opposition and strong objections from neighbouring China to meet this US demand; and that the agreement was explicitly on the basis that the South Koreans provided the locations, while the system itself remained both the property and the economic responsibility of the US.

Both the presidential front-runner, Moon Jae-in – who opposes THAAD – and the second place candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo – who supports it – responded angrily, renewing calls that the stationing of THAAD should be slowed until after the elections to allow the new government to reconsider the matter. This undoubtedly boosted the numbers already participating in major protests and sit-downs attempting to block the US convoys installing the THAAD system.

By Saturday 29 April, Trump’s security advisor McMaster, was on the phone to the acting president of South Korea to reassure him that the US expected no payment for THAAD, and that Trump’s comments had been made in the ‘general context’ of expectations of ‘defence cost burden-sharing with allies’.

This Trump blunder however had already compounded the fury in South Korea at the insulting level of ignorance he had shown when, in a 12 April interview with the Wall Street Journal, he claimed that ‘Korea actually used to be a part of China’!

Nor had South Korea been consulted prior to Trump’s mid-April Twitter announcement that he was sending an ‘armada’ to the Korean peninsula. In the light of this blatant disrespect, not surprisingly the South Korean media were especially excoriating when it emerged that this alleged armada – the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group – was in fact heading for the Indian Ocean at the time.

The upshot is that while Trump has continued to apply stepped up pressure to China and has sent envoys on a charm offensive to win Asian allies support for a tougher line on North Korea – senior White House officials visited Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines over the last few days – the key ally that this policy impacts upon and whose support is decisive, South Korea, is becoming progressively more alienated from the US.

Both front-running presidential candidates in South Korea have strengthened their calls for the resumption of talks with, rather than threats against North Korea. A Moon presidency in particular spells a potential problem for Trump’s ‘get tough’ policy on the North. Not only is Moon committed to trying to restart the six-party talks, but he has promised a new version of the 1998-2008 ‘sunshine policy’ towards the DPRK that successfully bought stability on the peninsula in return for talks, international advocacy for the North, aid, trade and other openings.

Moon currently looks unbeatable given that the climb in the polls of the more pro-US Ahn stalled in the face of the erosion of popular support for Trump’s interventions.

Trump’s military threats are genuinely dangerous in the context of North Korea’s isolation and understandable paranoia, with an unintended conflict not impossible. But his bluster, bombast and incivility is not winning friends in South Korea and therefore are not bringing together a ‘coalition of the willing’ in Northeast Asia that includes the US ally most central to the issues.