On July 2, President of the Republic of Korea Mr. Moon Jae-in returned home from the United States, completing his first five-day foreign visit after assuming office. During the summit, issues related to the settlement of the North Korean nuclear program, the functioning of the military alliance between Seoul and Washington, as well as a possible revision of the free trade agreement between the two countries were discussed. According to a joint post-meeting statement released to the press, the parties agreed to strengthen the South Korean-American partnership, cooperate on the North Korean issue, conduct fair trade in order to stimulate economic growth, strengthen economic cooperation, and ensure active partnership cooperation at the global level.
No apparent differences and misunderstandings were witnessed, something which no one expected. As expected, US President Donald Trump once again stressed that the time of “strategic patience” towards the “ruthless and cruel regime” of the DPRK was now over, and advocated “a broader approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, including foreign policy, economic methods, and security.” Moon, on the other hand, agitated for a “phased and comprehensive” approach based on deterrence, sanctions and dialogue, not particularly revealing what exactly this meant. However, the fact that there was no open quarrel means that we can now say that the two leaders have managed to build a trusting relationship between themselves.
According to South Korean media, “Washington supported the efforts of the South Korean government aimed at a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear problem.” However, “to bring the DPRK on the path to dialogue (essentially meaning forcing Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear program), the parties agreed to exert maximum pressure on Pyongyang,” and the dialogue should be prepared only “in the presence of the conditions necessary for this.” Apparently, the success should be understood by the fact that Donald Trump “agreed that the Republic of Korea plays a leading role in creating the atmosphere necessary for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula,” and also reaffirmed the “readiness of the US to provide expanded deterrence of the DPRK with the help of its own military capabilities.”
However, it is more interesting to consider President Moon’s speech during his reception in the White House, the central event of the summit. The Head of the Republic of Korea proclaimed that if Donald Trump manages to solve the North Korean problem, this would be a huge success that none of the former American presidents ever managed to achieve. He also stressed that he more or less agreed with Trump’s foreign policy on North Korea, which is based on a strong will, noting that before Trump, everyone else had spoken on the seriousness of this problem, albeit without taking real actions. It should be noted that even Lee Myung-bak did not stoop down to such open indulgence, not to mention Park Geun-hye.
Moon demonstrated the same level of the “singing-to-the-same-tune” stance during a speech at the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): on the one hand, the Republic of Korea and the US “will not create artificial conditions for the reunification of Korea” or attack the DPRK; on the other hand, “the great unity between the Republic of Korea and the United States could become even greater if it is prevented from bowing down to the nuclear threat of the North.”
Nevertheless, there still remain some unresolved issues that are in many respects the most acute. This includes the future of the bilateral free trade agreement and the distribution of costs for the maintenance of US troops on the Korean peninsula. In this regard, only general phrases were made, including “the parties decided to develop extensive and balanced relations in this area, as well as to organize a consultative body on economic issues at a high level.” At the same time, Trump specifically noted the need to increase the share of Seoul’s spending on the maintenance of the US military contingent and even said that the proper allocation of costs is a factor of increasing importance. Serious problems in the automotive and steel industries were also excluded from the final documents.
At the “Business Summit”, where representatives of leading companies and policies from both countries took positions on both sides, Moon Jae-in ignored economic problems and spoke on the problems of security and North Korea: “In the process of realizing our government’s plan to resolve Pyongyang’s nuclear problem, you are presented with the possibility of not only being able to comfortably invest in South Korea, but also get a chance to invest in the Northern part of the peninsula.”
No comments were made on the project for the deployment of the THAAD missile defense complexes in the Republic of Korea. Moreover, even before the visit, it was announced that the main agenda of the South Korean-US summit would not be THAAD, but issues of trade between the two countries, including the possibility of revising the free trade agreement.
An unclear hang up also surrounds the list of questions and concerns to do with the transfer of command: Donald Trump stressed that Seoul’s transfer of operational control over its troops in wartime will be carried out after the establishment of the conditions necessary for this. As to what kind of conditions these are, no specifics were outlined.
However, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea Kang Kyung-wha expressed her condolences on the death of the American student Otto Warmbier, saying that the parties should work closely on improving the human rights situation in the DPRK. The parties agreed to expand cooperation in combating global challenges, especially terrorism.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea described the South Korea-US summit as successful. According to a party representative, the meeting of the leaders of the two countries is of profound significance, and indicates the overcoming of the half-year silence of the South Korean foreign policy and the beginning of a new era in the world. The Liberty Korea Party also expressed approval that the presidents of the two countries stressed the importance of the unity between the Republic of Korea and the US, and also supported the unity of positions in solving the problem of the nuclear and missile threat of the North. Party representative Kim Sung Won, however, pointed out that Donald Trump had repeatedly noted the need to revise the bilateral free trade agreement and expenditure arrangements on maintaining the US military contingent in the Republic of Korea. Kim Sung Won also noted that in this way, the US president pointed to a number of complex issues that the government of Moon Jae-in will have to solve. The People’s Party also expressed a similar position.
Out of sheer joy, South Korean enterprises have announced plans to invest in the US economy. For example, Samsung Electronics reported that its Director of the Consumer Electronics Department Yoon Boo Keun and Governor of South Carolina Henry McMaster signed a contract of intent to invest USD 380 million into the construction of a washing machine plant. To this end, the plant plans to hire about 950 American citizens. SK Group announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with US energy companies GE and Continental Resources, in which, over the next five years, SK Group intends to invest USD 1.58 billion into the US economy. The Korean State Gas Corporation (KoGas) signed a memorandum on cooperation in the field of LNG in the US with US companies ExxonMobil, Energy Transfer Partners and The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation.
Following these developments, Moon’s critics have already begun making witty remarks: why is it corruption to transfer money into funds dedicated to the development of Korean sports or music, while investing in the US economy, which is a de facto gift, is a patriotic initiative that businessmen have forked out exclusively voluntarily.
Overall: the parties agreed only on the fact that they would consider the Korean Nuclear Crisis a common problem of first priority; there is no significant breakthrough on far more important economic issues for the Republic of Korea; Moon’s statements on his readiness for a dialogue with the North if the latter makes concessions, even yield to the initiatives of conservative presidents that they put forward at the beginning of their rules (Lee Myung-bak’s “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness” and Park Geun-hye’s “confidence process”, while the difference in approaches in practice amounts to the fact that if Trump believes that dialogue with the DPRK is possible only after its denuclearization, Moon believes that it is possible to dialogue with the DPRK under certain conditions which (Surprise!) include its denuclearization, or at least the promise for such.
Therefore, as we have already pointed out, the foreign policy of the new president is unlikely going to significantly veer off the course previously etched by his predecessors.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.