President Donald Trump will visit South Korea this week as a part of his whistle-stop tour of Asia. Trump will stay only one day in Seoul, and he has a known dislike for long overseas trips. He is unlikely to return to South Korea for the remainder of his term. This puts enormous pressure on South Korean president Moon Jae-In to make the most of his time with Trump.
Moon recently gave an address to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea in which he stated: “No military action on the Korean Peninsula shall be taken without the prior consent of the Republic of Korea.” Yet the Trump administration has clearly not consulted with the South over its tough rhetoric this year. Trump has ad-libbed his harshest remarks—such as “fire and fury” or “totally destroying North Korea.” Even his staff did not know that he would say such things. So demoralizing is this behavior that the South Korean press even have a term for it—“Korea passing.” That is, the Trump administration is passing South Korea by on the response to Northern nuclearization, but nonetheless placing the South in the frontline if there is a war, as well as implicitly pushing any post-war costs—and they will be enormous—onto Seoul.
This problem—South Korea’s assent to any conflict—will almost certainly be the focus of Moon’s meeting with Trump, and if it is not, it should be. The South Korean public does not want a war, nor does the South Korean government. Even conservative South Korean governments in the past have ultimately demurred from launching strikes against the North, such as in 2010 when North Korea sank a South Korean destroyer. Trump and the Americans may not like that. Indeed, it appears that most of the senior Trump national-security team either support strikes or at least does not oppose them (with the exception of Secretary of Defense James Mattis). But this should not matter; South Korea must assent to any conflict that will so dramatically impact its national life for decades. Moon should hammer that point home relentlessly in the short time he has with Trump.
It is South Korea—more than any other country—that will bear the costs of any kinetic North Korean contingency. Indeed, North Korea may launch a missile at the United States in a conflict, and it may be devastating, but South Korea will suffer far more. Even without nuclear weapons, Northern artillery ranged near the Southern capital of Seoul could kill tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, in the first few days of a conflict. For Trump to risk the lives of so many others without their assent is fundamentally undemocratic. It is “annihilation without representation,” as they used to say during the Cold War. To ignore Seoul’s obviously stated preferences against war would demand that South Koreans carry the huge costs of a policy they have no say in making. Indeed, what would be point of allying with the United States if it felt comfortable launching a massive conflict which would clearly chain-gang one in, but without even soliciting one’s permission? Moon should make it clear that if the United States launches a major conflict with North Korea without South Korean assent, then he would take South Korea out of the alliance.
In effect, although no one will say it so bluntly, South Korea should have a veto over the United States’ use of force against the North given that it will carry the bulk of the huge, potentially state-breaking, costs. One can hear recognition of this in Mattis’ interventions throughout this crisis. He constantly mentions working with “our partners,” which is about as close as he can come to saying that South Korea must agree to any serious strike. No American official could publicly admit that a foreign state has a veto over its use of force, but it is hardly unheard of. Israeli concerns over Middle Eastern security carry much weight in Washington, as do NATO concerns over engaging Russia. The South Korea case is more severe though because of the sheer amount of death and destruction North Korea can wreak against it so easily.
The White House has said that the focus of Trump’s trip will be North Korea and trade. While the North will occupy the lion’s share of the Moon-Trump meeting, Moon should also push back hard on Trump’s instinctive protectionism. Marcus Noland has helpfully compiled a quick overview of how a rollback of the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement will negatively impact U.S. workers and consumers.
KORUS is recent enough that it could still be unwound without the level of bureaucratic headache the Trump administration is encountering with its attempted NAFTA rollback. KORUS is also the type of Asian trade deal which Trump has criticized for decades. Most Asian trading states run a surplus with the United States, a point Trump has harped on since announcing his presidential candidacy. South Korea is asymmetrically dependent on the United States for security and comparatively weak enough (unlike Japan or China) that Trump might believe he can bully it into the sort of one-sided deal he likes. The Moon administration has contested KORUS renegotiation in general terms, but here is a unique opportunity to confront Trump directly with job losses and market access (for U.S. cars, particularly) should he move forward.
Moon will struggle. Trump has turned North Korea into one of the defining issues of his presidency and has made outsized promises about “taking care” of it. Trump will feel enormous pressure to show some progress or to otherwise act militarily, as he did in Syria. South Korea’s bargaining position is also weak, because it so obviously needs the United States more for security and market-access than vice versa. This meeting will be a defining moment for Moon; otherwise “Korea passing” will almost certainly worsen when Trump leaves the region, unlikely to return.
Robert Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found at his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in deliver a joint statement from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria