Emanuel Yi Pastreich, a professor at Kyunghee University’s international school and an expert in international relations, speaks about how President Moon Jae-in should do with a diplomatic crisis caused by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
This interview was conducted by Kim Hae-sun, the CEO of Suntransglobe Asia Ltd on Wednesday.
Q: President Moon’s special envoy Hong Seok-hyun, Chairman of JoongAng Media and former Korean ambassador to Washington D.C. has just returned from a trip to Washington DC where he met with President Donald Trump and delivered a letter from President Moon Jae-in. Mr. Hong also met with the US Senator John McCain to discuss the THAAD issue, especially the cost of the installation of the system.
How should we read the recent development of relations between the Moon and Trump administrations?
A: The closeness is rather unexpected. We anticipated a major conflict in light of the recent conflicts with North Korea and the threats of Tillerson. But Trump has a lot of domestic issues he must contend with. Perhaps he is starting to think a North Korea breakthrough might save him. He is also plunging into the Middle East with his Saudi and Israel engagement, and Middle East NATO concept. He may not be able to come up for air for a while.
Q: After the summit meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping at Mar-A-Lago, the US demanded that China play a role by pressuring North Korea and taking economic measures that would solve the N. Korean nuclear missile issue,
President Xi asked that President Trump give him 100 days to come up with the solution. How do you think President Xi intends to solve this issue now that we have a new President in Seoul who is committed to engagement?
A: No doubt President Xi is relieved and he did not really believe that he could make North Korea bargain away its nuclear program through economic sanctions. Actually, no one believes that is possible. The question is whether Xi and Moon, who have a lot in common as personalities, might be able to put their heads together and come up with a new vision for the region. Trump is going to be simply too busy, and he has no Asia expertise at all around him. Not even an ambassador in Seoul.
Q: I understand that the Asia Institute recently hosted a well-known Korea watcher inWashington DC, Mr. Stephen Costello. He delivered talks at the National Assembly and elsewhere. He was an important leader in the policy discussion during the President Kim Dae Jung era and continues to play a vital role. What was the key message that he wished to deliver?
A: Costello suggested that the Moon administration should go forward with confidence. However frightening the some of the statements coming from Washington may be, the Trump Administration is in no position to make policy about Asia and if Moon can articulate a vision, and customize it to appeal to Trump, this could be a moment when Korea is at its strongest in the US-Korea relationship and globally. But that will require some very sophisticated diplomacy to take advantage of this opportunity.
Q: As you know there is a big political scandal brewing in the US since President Trump dismissed the director of the FBI James Comey who was investigating him. Many are drawing parallels to Nixon in the “Watergate Scandal.” What is your opinion, and what is the talk among the Washington Think Tank folks? Is impeachment a real possibility and if so, what impact will it have on Korea?
A: We still do not know. But overall, I fear the political crisis in Washington D.C. is far more serious than anything that can be solved by an impeachment. Korea has turned itself around, but pay to play DC will be much harder. Some tell me the odds are high. I am not so sure. But we can imagine serious political fights that will bring government to a grinding halt and essentially end US foreign policy, or have it outsourced to those who do not know what they are talking about. The real problem is that experts are entirely out of the loop now.
Q: And what might we expect Trump to do in his interactions with North Korea? What does Moon want from Trump if there is a summit meeting in June?
A: Trump knows nothing about North Korea. But as we know from his turn around with Saudi Arabia, he knows no shame. So if there is a chance for a breakthrough that gives him some good press, he will be willing to go along with it—granted there are enough people in the military who agree.
As for the summit meeting, well, I think that Moon will have to play a very delicate game. He wants Trump to essentially let him do what he has been planning to do for the last ten years. Moon had better prepare very, very carefully.
Q: Overall President Moon is off to a great start. He enjoys a high approval rating and his ‘common man’ touch clearly set him apart from the elitist former President Park Geun hye who would not meet anyone. What should we make of his first two weeks in the office?
A: It was not at all obvious that Moon would do so well in the first few weeks. He has gone back and forth on many political issues in the past and also was not so good about meeting ordinary people. But I think what we see is not just Moon, but a large number of citizens and government officials who want real change, who are frustrated by the incompetence shown over the last nine years. They are coordinating together and I think that they have a real vision. Moon is the beneficiary, and he is doing the right thing, but this political shift is not just about him.
Even more importantly, Korea is addressing social issues, addressing environmental issues, addressing work issues. The rest of the world, France, Japan the US, Turkey, are heading the opposite direction. This is very exciting for us. Korea could be a leader in a substantial sense.