The Skeptics

The U.S.-South Korea Alliance Is Now Asia's Oddest Couple

Moon also advocated negotiation. He urged restarting the Six-Party Talks, involving China, Russia, Japan, the United States and the two Koreas. He proposed bilateral talks with the North, explaining that he wanted to make his first foreign trip to Pyongyang. He opposed deployment of THAAD, a joint U.S.-ROK initiative intended to protect against a North Korean attack. And, unsurprisingly, he would not support starting another war on the peninsula. Perhaps most important, he talked about the ROK taking a more active role in policy toward the North.

A good politician, Moon softened many of his positions during the campaign as his lead shrunk. He talked of setting conditions for negotiations, temporized on THAAD and announced that Washington, instead, would be his first travel destination. Nevertheless, in all of these areas he still varies sharply from the Trump administration. And many of his key staffers are from the radical left. For instance, his chief of staff, thirty-nine-year-old Im Jong-seok, once organized a student takeover of the U.S. ambassador’s office and even was jailed for promoting contacts with Pyongyang.

Moon’s perspective is perfectly defensible, though naïve, at least regarding North Korea’s willingness to moderate its behavior. The North’s latest missile test suggests that Pyongyang is not in a conciliatory mood. However, the alliance long ago lost its raison d’être. Having dramatically surpassed North Korea economically and in most other measures of national power, Seoul is capable of defending itself and deciding its own policy toward the North.

Nevertheless, the alliance remains—and it likely faces rough waters. In general, Moon is less likely to acquiesce to Washington’s views.

The Trump administration stated its intention to apply maximum pressure on the North. That means more economic sanctions and threats of war. The president indicated his interest in talks, but apparently only with preconditions, most notably agreeing to Washington’s demands first. (Alas, North Korea’s most recent missile test likely is Kim Jong-un’s response to President Trump.) The administration also placed great emphasis on winning Beijing’s assistance in limiting aid and trade with the North. Although Secretaries Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson downplayed the issue of burden sharing, it is perhaps the only constant of the president’s comments on the alliance.

In all of these areas the Moon administration threatens to undercut, even obstruct, Washington’s objectives. More South Korean economic engagement necessarily eases pressure on the North. If the South increases aid and investment, Washington can hardly insist that China cut its economic ties with the North. South Korean negotiations with few preconditions would leave the United States isolated in refusing to talk unless Pyongyang accedes to the former’s demands. South Korean policymakers uniformly contend that Seoul owes nothing more financially. And there is little doubt that Moon’s government would oppose any proposed military action.

No doubt the two governments will do their best to paper over difficulties as they arise. But President Moon strongly believes in a different path, seemingly incompatible with the Trump administration’s stated plans. At the same time, President Trump is likely to react badly to any resistance to his priorities. North Korean behavior might drive the two allies together, but if not South Koreans may find end up paying a high price for subcontracting out their security to Washington.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Foreign Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: Moon Jae-in at his inauguration. Flickr/Republic of Korea