by Tim Shorrock
After returning from his Asia trip this week, President Trump went on national television to laud the accomplishments he apparently thought the US media had missed on his highly publicized swing through Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
On Wednesday, in a speech more notable for his lunge for a water bottle than content, Trump highlighted the progress he made in advancing his “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea’s nuclear program and his refusal to consider any compromise to his military-first strategy.
“We would not accept a so-called ‘freeze for freeze’ agreement” that has been suggested by both China and Russia and has won some acceptance in South Korea, Trump said. He repeated his administration’s favorite aphorism for a military solution, saying “all options remain on the table,” adding: “We have to denuclearize North Korea.”
But a day later, China repeated its interest in a mutual freeze, saying through its foreign ministry that “suspension-for-suspension is the most realistic, viable, and reasonable solution in the current situation.” This week it also announced that it was sending a high-level special envoy to Pyongyang to meet with the Kim Jong Un government to discuss the issue—the first such visit in two years (Trump welcomed the move with a hopeful tweet).
Back in Washington, supporters of Trump’s hardline stance were ecstatic about his Asia visit. Even though he dropped some of his more volatile language, they were particularly happy with his address to the South Korean National Assembly, where he ripped the Kim Jong Un regime as a “cruel dictatorship” and moral disgrace (one rabid regime-changer called Trump’s speech “the best thing he’s done in his entire life.”) Trump even drew praise from South Korean officials and lawmakers normally reticent to publicly repudiate their northern neighbor.
But lost amidst the hoopla were several moves by the Moon Jae-in administration that mark a significant break from the US strategy of uniting South Korea and Japan in a trilateral military alliance under US command to challenge not only North Korea but China as well.
Even before Trump landed in Seoul, the outlines of South Korea’s shift were clear:
- In an interview with a Singapore newspaper on November 3, Moon flatly declared that South Korea would not join a three-way alliance with Japan, stressing that military “cooperation” was necessary but not a formal arrangement. “I don’t think it is appropriate to develop the cooperation to a level of (trilateral) military alliance,” he said. This was the first time Moon had publicly stated opposition to the idea, which—as I’ve been reporting—has been the focus on intense behind-the-scenes pressure from US officials for years.
- A week before Trump’s state visit, South Korea and China announced that they had agreed to “normalize” their relations after a bitter, year-long struggle of wills over US deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) in South Korea, which China has consistently opposed. At the same time, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha declared that, while accepting THAAD, South Korea “had no intention” of joining US efforts to build a “regionwide missile-defense system aimed at countering China’s expansion of its military capabilities,” as The New York Times reported.
- Then, as the Pentagon prepared during Trump’s visit for joint naval exercises off the Korean peninsula with three aircraft carrier groups, Moon’s government rejected US proposals to include Japanese vessels in the unprecedented maneuvers. According to Nikkei Asian Review, “while the proposal was welcomed in Tokyo, the South Korean government refused to accept Japanese participation, citing public sentiment among other reasons.” It also “expressed reservations” about Japan’s possible role in joint exercises with the US, Australian and South Korean navies off the island of Jeju in early November, Nikkei
Despite the Korean refusal, however, Japan participated anyway, sending several large warships from its Maritime Self-Defense Force to sail alongside the US armada prior to the US bilateral exercises with South Korea. And as President Moon has made clear, South Korea and its military will continue to work closely with the Trump administration in its well-oiled campaign to force North Korea to back away from its military programs and denuclearize the peninsula.
But Moon’s steps away from Japan and towards China mark an important move towards a more independent stance with the United States and signify a response to broad public support in South Korea for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Many Koreans are also uncomfortable with the idea of Japanese troops taking part in Korean military maneuvers or participating in a future war on the peninsula. Reflecting these widespread emotions, Moon’s government took steps during Trump’s visit to Seoul to express Korean frustrations with Japan.
At the state dinner for Trump on November 8, for example, Moon invited an 88-year-old former “comfort woman” to meet with Trump. . The widely televised pictures of Trump embracing the woman, who’d been kidnapped by Japanese forces during World War II into sexual slavery, infuriated Japanese diplomats, who have consistently denied that its military forced Asian women to service their soldiers.
To Abe, the dinner—which also included servings of “Dokdo shrimp” from an island still claimed by Japan under the name Takeshima—symbolized South Korea’s reluctance to cooperate too closely with this government. Afterwards, Japanese officials “expressed confusion and frustration over the decision to reference such a sensitive issue at a time when trilateral relations are so crucial to regional security,” Kyodo News reported.
Tim Shorrock is a Washington-based journalist who writes about US national security and foreign policy for many publications at home and abroad. He is the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. Photo: Moon Jae-in