South Korea Needs to Rethink ‘Self-Defeating’ Foreign Policy

During their presidential transition, Barack Obama told Donald Trump that North Korea would be his biggest and most immediate challenge. The warning was accurate.

Now Trump can tell his successor, Joe Biden, the same thing. The only question is whether Kim Jong Un will continue to refrain from firing missiles and testing nuclear weapons to see what free concessions the Biden administration may offer.

Trump should warn Biden that we have not just one Korea problem, but two. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s wayward policies complicate not only Washington’s relations with Seoul, but also with Pyongyang, Beijing and even Tokyo. The Moon approach can be summed up by two bizarre, but unfortunately apt, characterizations: 

The ally (Japan) of my ally (the United States) is my enemy.

The ally (China) of my enemy (North Korea) is my friend.

The Republic of Korea under Moon needs a fresh look at its contradictory, self-defeating and inherently dangerous foreign policy. Past sins cannot blind us to present dangers. (…)

n August 2019, South Korea said it was withdrawing from an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan, an action that would seriously jeopardize not only Tokyo’s national security interests but Seoul’s and Washington’s as well. At the last minute, the U.S. prevailed upon South Korea to reverse its position, but the frosty relations between South Korea and Japan continue to endanger the security situation in Northeast Asia.

In 2020, Japan placed controls on semiconductor-related items and removed South Korea from its “white list” of trusted partners. South Korea responded by removing Japan from its own “white list.”

The Moon government seems unable to get past the wrongs committed by Imperial Japan in the 1930s and ’40s and deal cooperatively with modern Japan as a fellow democracy. Yet, it takes a diametrically opposite, even forgiving, approach toward the more recent aggression and contemporary threats from North Korea and China.

In 2017, Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy the THAAD system to defend against North Korean missiles. Despite evidence to the contrary, Beijing vehemently objected that it would directly endanger China’s own security, and imposed economic sanctions on South Korea. Seoul came close to canceling the deployment and did make commitments to Beijing not to expand the system.

Since then, both Moon and China’s Xi Jinping have made a concerted effort to establish friendly relations in ways that complicate both Japan-ROK relations and Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The Moon administration has made clear it is not enthusiastic about participating in any regional effort that Beijing could interpret as an anti-China strategy.

For that reason, it has refused so far to join Japan, Australia, India and the United States in quadrilateral regional security consultations (presently called The Quad). The aloofness to the U.S.-led collaboration is specific to the Moon administration itself, not to South Korea’s people or its military. Both cherish close relations with the United States based on shared democratic values and the bonds of sacrifice in the combat that secured the country’s freedom from communist conquest.

It is true that Trump’s occasional questioning of the alliance and his demand that Seoul quintuple its financial contribution to the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea have exacerbated the tensions, though Seoul has agreed that some increase is warranted.

Some might argue that Trump has treated Pyongyang more gently than it has Seoul, almost vying with Moon for Kim’s favor. But that would ignore how Trump got to the “love letter” stage with Kim — after first applying a maximum-pressure campaign of punishing economic sanctions, the credible threat of force, and a delegitimizing series of attacks on Kim’s human rights atrocities and fitness to govern.

That is an important lesson for how North Korea should be treated going forward, if, as is likely, it attempts to intimidate the incoming Biden administration. But the other lesson learned from Trump’s creative approach is the role China continues to play in blocking progress on North Korea denuclearization.

Read the full article on The Hill.

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