Moon goes to Washington amid low expectations

By Cheng Xiaohe Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/29 18:38:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is paying his maiden foreign visit to Washington, but his trip may be tough, given that the two nations have not been on the same page on a variety of issues since Moon came to power in early May.

The first thing that Moon should do during his visit is to build mutual trust with US President Donald Trump, who has already kept Koreans on their toes with his scathing Korea-related tweets. It is not a secret that relations between South Korea and the US have been uneasy if not tense when a progressive president occupied the Blue House.

Naturally, the US cast a wary eye on Moon as he emerged as the winner of the presidential election, since Moon had been perceived as a pro-North Korean politician.

As the short-tempered Trump struggles to build good relations with allied nations, we'll see if Moon can sail his country's relations with Washington through choppy waters in the years to come.   

Moon once claimed that he wants to build personal friendship with Trump and consolidate allied relations with the US. However, he cannot skip some urgent issues that may bring the two into conflict.

On the security front, Moon and Trump have to redress their differences in dealing with North Korea. The Trump administration is now carrying out a "maximum pressure and engagement" policy with an emphasis on pressure. Moon acknowledges the necessity of exerting pressure on North Korea but highlights the value of reaching out to it for talks.

In fact, the Moon administration has already taken measures to thaw frozen relations with Pyongyang. Moon even took a step further by proposing to cohost the Winter Olympics Games with North Korea next year.

The deployment of the THAAD missile defense system is another divisive issue that has begun to bring the two nations toward a head-on collision. The decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea was jointly made by South Korea and the US, but the former has borne the major brunt of alienating China, which believes that the deployment will sabotage strategic stability in Northeast Asia. For the first time since the two nations exchanged diplomatic recognition in 1992, relations between South Korea and China suffered a deep plunge.

To make matters worse, Trump once asked Seoul via a tweet to pay the $1 billion bill for the anti-ballistic missile system. In order to address this awkward situation, the Moon administration changed the course and ordered a thorough environmental assessment of THAAD and halted installation of four launchers for the THAAD battery that have already arrived in South Korea.

The changes certainly helped to assuage Beijing but agitated Washington, which believes that the THAAD deployment will be effectively delayed. As Moon seeks to consolidate South Korea's alliance with the US, explaining his government's moves on the THAAD issue to Trump will be a hard sell.

On the economic front, the talks between Moon and Trump may be less controversial. Moon's entourage includes a large number of businessmen, who may bring investment or jobs to the US, a welcome move for Trump.

Nonetheless, as Trump has made it clear that the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which came into effect in 2012, should be renegotiated, South Korea is under pressure to make more concessions in any future FTA talks.

Moon is trying to jump start South Korea's economy, which has been long troubled by a chronic downturn, so Moon cannot avoid exchanging views with Trump over the FTA issue.   

Moon's trip will not be easy. He goes to Washington with many questions in his mind. He and Trump will struggle to reconcile their policy priorities and forge a consensus over some thorny security and economic issues.

Moon tried to lower people's expectations of his trip, claiming that he does not seek concrete results on specific issues from his visit. Certainly, Moon will not be able to reap impressive results from this visit, but he may try to put the shaky start of Korea-US relations on a solid foundation and prevent their policy differences from undermining their alliance.

The author is an associate professor at the School of International Studies and deputy director of the Center for International Strategic Studies, Renmin University of China. He is also a senior research fellow with Pangoal Institute.


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