Despite campaigning for the presidency with a pledge to “say no to the Americans,” South Korean leader Moon Jae-in lately seems like a man who can’t stop saying “yes.”
As tensions with North Korea have risen once again, Moon has doubled down on his country’s alliance with the United States by authorizing the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system — which he’d opposed during his campaign — and has fallen into lockstep with the Trump administration’s call for tougher sanctions on the North. Moon has even found himself sounding like a milder version of the American president, recently ruling out the possibility of dialogue with the North for the foreseeable future.
To be fair, it’s far from certain that Kim Jong-un would be interested in listening to anything that Moon had to say. The North Korean regime has expressed repeatedly that its primary goal is talking with the United States directly, viewing the American military as the country’s main security threat.
Whether one takes the view that Pyongyang is building its stockpile of missiles and nuclear weapons mainly as a defense deterrent, or if they instead are part of a longer term strategy to launch a new war with the goal of reunifying the peninsula, is immaterial to this point. In the current security climate, the North Koreans know that all deals go through Washington. So why bother talking with Seoul?
This situation illustrates the quandary facing South Korean governments of all political stripes. Two months after taking office, the liberal Moon offered a conciliatory vision in his much publicized “Berlin Declaration,” in which he announced his intention to “embark on a dauntless journey towards establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
But this has so far been met with as much enthusiasm from the North as his conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye’s equally ballyhooed — at least in the West — “Trustpolitik,” which tried to balance an openness to engagement with a harder line. Either way, the North seems scarcely interested.
The South Korean media often complains about the country’s lack of clout in regional and peninsular affairs, even coining the phrase “Korea Passing” to describe the phenomenon, and criticizes whichever government is in power for not asserting Korean interests more forcefully.
Tellingly, these criticisms rarely touch on the root cause of the problem.
That cause, of course, is the fact that it is impossible to gain the respect of neighboring countries when the government has essentially outsourced its security policy to the world’s main imperial power and houses upwards of 20,000 of its troops in bases throughout South Korea.
This is particularly true when the legitimacy of the North Korean regime rests on the fact that it fought that imperial power to a draw. As North Korea has shown time and again in dealing with South Korea, it’s more than happy to take Seoul’s money and aid when it’s on offer, but is far less willing to make concessions in return.
This, then, is why a government coming to power preaching a message of dialogue and reconciliation with the North is doomed to find itself in exactly the position that Moon is in today: well-intentioned, but hopelessly constrained by the country’s alliance with the United States.
And on this point, South Koreans need to begin asking themselves some hard questions. Under President Trump, the U.S. has pursued an erratic approach toward the North, veering from threats of “fire and fury” one day to offers of dialogue the next. Meanwhile, American public support for taking military action against North Korea is creeping up: A recent CNN poll found half of respondents in favor of the military option, and this was in the weeks before Kim Jong-un had conducted his most recent ICBM and nuclear tests.
South Koreans continue to assume that their American ally wouldn’t do anything to put them in harm’s way, and they’ve lived with the North Korean threat for so long as to become numb to it. Yet they’re deluding themselves if they believe they have veto power over the United States, should Trump conclude that North Korea represents a direct threat to the American homeland and decide to take military action.
Senator Lindsey Graham — a leading proponent of the invasion of Iraq, among many other military misadventures — summed up this view quite succinctly. “President Trump is not going to allow the ability of this madman [Kim Jong-un] to have a missile that could hit America,” he said. And “if thousands die, they’re going to die [in Korea].”
Becoming an unwilling participant in the latest American military misadventure is of course still just an unpleasant hypothetical. What is quite concrete, however, are the recent diplomatic hits that Seoul has taken as a result of its alliance with the United States.
Due to its acquiescence to American demands regarding the deployment of THAAD, South Korea’s relationship with China — the country’s largest trading partner — has sunk to the lowest point in decades. Moon couldn’t even get a phone call with President Xi Jinping following the North’s sixth nuclear test. Considering the key role that China needs to play in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, this is hardly an ideal time for such a rupture.
There’s also been considerable economic fallout due to the THAAD deployment. Consumer boycotts and overzealous police inspections of the major Korean retail chain Lotte have forced the company to shutter 87 of its 99 Chinese stores, while declining profits briefly suspended the Chinese operations of Hyundai Motors after the company fell behind on payments to suppliers.
In a final act of insult, Trump also demanded that the South Korean government pay $1 billion for the privilege of cutting off its nose to spite its face.
None of this is to say that South Koreans should end their alliance with the United States; that’s a question that they must decide for themselves. However, their leaders need to start being honest about what the alliance has cost them, both in terms of leverage with North Korea and their relationship with China, if they’re serious about changing the dynamics of their country’s position in regional affairs.