Can Moon close gap in US-S.Korea alliance?

By Zhao Lixin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/26 18:43:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will visit the US on Wednesday. Considering tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a recent series of complicated incidents, especially differences between the two countries about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system and policies toward North Korea, Moon's visit to Washington is not going to be easy.

Topics for the summit are no secret. The North Korean nuclear issue, policies toward North Korea, THAAD, the cost of South Korea's defense bill, a US-South Korea free trade agreement, and even wartime operational control are all possible areas of discussion.

US President Donald Trump certainly expects "gifts" from his East Asian ally, and Moon also has the opportunity to show the US and the world South Korea's policy orientation for the next five years.

In the past decade, there have been only two core security topics during visits by new South Korean presidents to the US: strengthening and expanding the US-South Korea alliance and discussing new measures to impose pressure on North Korea to urge it to abandon nuclear weapons unconditionally.

On his first visit to the US in 2008, Lee Myung-bak replaced the "sunshine policy" adopted by Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun with a tough and coercive approach.

Park Geun-hye stressed deterrence against the North while starting a "trust-building process" on the Korean Peninsula. During her first visit to the US in 2013, she managed to upgrade the US-South Korea comprehensive strategic alliance to a global partnership.

During her administration from 2014 to 2015, a close China-South Korea relationship made the US worry that its ally was falling into the orbit of China. But soon enough, the dispute over THAAD between Beijing and Seoul made bilateral relations cool down. In the latter half of 2016, the policies of South Korean conservative forces lined up with the interests of the US.

But in the first half of 2017, both the US and South Korea underwent changes of leadership, and their alliance is now in a brief transitional phase. Trump's "America First" policy and his unpredictable nature are bringing pressure and trouble to South Korea. The likelihood that Moon will re-adopt the "sunshine policy" makes the US anxious.

Observers have noticed that recently, there have been delicate changes in the communication atmosphere during discussions about the leaders' meeting. Signs show that the Moon administration intends to abandon the hardline policies toward North Korea that Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye adopted and try to use a mild attitude instead. At the same time, the US is dissatisfied with the Moon administration due to its suspension of THAAD deployment.

On June 16, Moon Chung-in, special presidential aide for unification, security and diplomatic affairs, brought up the following "presidential proposal" at a seminar in Washington: If North Korea stops nuclear and missile activities, South Korea may consult with the US to decrease strategic weapons on the peninsula and downsize US-South Korea military exercises.

Surprisingly, on June 19, North Korean Ambassador to India Kye Chun-yong said that Pyongyang is willing to talk about freezing its nuclear and missile tests under certain circumstances.

Moon Chung-in's remarks and North Korea's response have triggered controversies in South Korea and the US. The Blue House clarified that Moon Chung-in's words are his own and do not reflect the views of the South Korean government.

But it is clear that the new government knows that engagement and dialogue are key to security in the peninsula.

South Korea may be using the prospect of an independent policy toward North Korea as a bargaining chip ahead of the upcoming summit.

The South intends to tell the US that it has suffered 10 trillion won ($8.8 billion) in losses due to China's anti-THAAD measures, so it hopes the US will make concessions in renegotiations about defense expense division, THAAD expenses and a free trade agreement. But Trump obviously thinks that South Korea should cover more costs of the alliance.

For Washington, a series of Moon Jae-in's acts after he took office run counter to the nature of the US-South Korean alliance. The South Korean public is worried that Trump will urge the president to complete deploying THAAD during their meeting and even prevent the South from trying to have an unconditional dialogue with North Korea.

The US will also be on guard against a restored "sunshine policy," because anti-Americanism once imposed a heavy shock on the US-South Korea alliance during the Roh Moo-hyun presidency.

The rift in the alliance may be patched up, but visionary South Korean politicians must have realized that the more consistent their policies are with American policies, the further they are from the path of independence.

The author is professor and director of the School of International Politics, Institute of Politics and Public Management, Yanbian University.


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