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Bridging the Divides Between Washington and Seoul

4 MINS READJun 29, 2017 | 17:22 GMT
South Korean President Moon Jae In is meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 29 and 30 in Washington.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 06: South Korean President Moon Jae In speaks during a ceremony marking Korean Memorial Day at the Seoul National cemetery on June 6, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. South Korea marks the 62th anniversary of the Memorial Day for people who died during the military service in the 1950-53 Korean War. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

South Korean President Moon Jae In has a daunting task ahead of him. When he meets with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 29 and 30, he will have to try to reconcile the differences between their administrations. Moon, who has been in office only since early May, is the last of the three main Northeast Asian leaders to meet with the U.S. president. Unlike Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, moreover, the South Korean president is meeting Trump in Washington and not at the so-called "Winter White House," Mar-a-Lago. The change in venue may be due to the season, or to the public scrutiny that Trump has drawn for the expense of his trips to Florida. But some observers in South Korea see it as a sign that Washington places lower priority on its relationship with Seoul relative to its ties with Tokyo or Beijing. While their meeting will highlight South Korea's decadeslong alliance with the United States, it will also emphasize the abiding divides between the two countries.

In case the United States moves to revisit the Korea-U.S. trade agreement, the South Korean president has more than 50 business representatives in tow on his visit to Washington. As the U.S. administration pursues its "Make in America" policy, Moon's government is facing high levels of youth unemployment and taking steps to restructure chaebols, the very conglomerates large enough to increase their activities in the United States to ease trade pressure. Their policies are not entirely incompatible, but they will nevertheless complicate the options available to Seoul.

Even so, it's over defense that the countries are liable to diverge the most. On the one hand, South Korea and the United States are long-standing allies, and chances are slim that a major rift will form in their defense relationship. On the other, Moon, a veteran of former President Roh Moo Hyun's administration, has a different vision for the future of South Korea's military, and that of its partnership with the United States, than his U.S. counterpart does. Moon, like Roh before him, will probably shift the South Korean military's focus to developing and expanding its own indigenous capabilities. That way, the country can play a more proactive role in its own national defense and a less prominent role as an auxiliary to the U.S. military. The long-term goal is to prepare for a time when either the United States reduces its presence on the Korean Peninsula or South Korea tries to assert its own security interests beyond the confines of its northern border. It's about cultivating enough military strength that foreign forces no longer need to maintain their posts in South Korea.

The more immediate differences on defense center on North Korea. The U.S. administration wasn't happy with Moon's decision to temporarily suspend further additions to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems in South Korea until after an environmental assessment had been conducted. Despite assurances that Moon would honor the deal that his predecessor signed enabling the United States to deploy the missile defense system, the South Korean president has faced pressure from his constituents to at least make a show against THAAD. From Washington's perspective, though, Seoul's actions will weaken THAAD's effect as a deterrent against North Korea by exposing the disparities between U.S. and South Korean strategic policies and may even encourage Pyongyang to try to exploit the differences.

And there are differences. The revised U.S. policy toward North Korea relies on further isolation and military pressure to force Pyongyang to back down and reverse its nuclear and missile programs. Moon, who helped arrange Roh's summit in 2007 with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, prefers sanctions and engagement. His administration is even open to inter-Korean projects such as reviving the shuttered Kaesong joint economic zone. Moon's primary objective with regard to North Korea is to calm the sense of crisis that has pervaded the region and provide a way for Pyongyang to accept a moratorium on missile and nuclear testing. But the United States may not accept such a temporary solution. After all, it's been nearly 25 years since the first major nuclear crisis with North Korea, and several moratoriums later, Pyongyang is even closer to attaining its goal of a deliverable long-range nuclear weapon.

The challenge for Moon will be to persuade Trump that they still have time before turning the conversation to military action. And the U.S. president's recent tweet decrying China's failure to change North Korea's behavior suggests it will be a formidable challenge indeed to convince Washington of Seoul's ability to succeed where Beijing couldn't, and in a timely manner.

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