Some Koreans are congratulating themselves that President Moon Jae-in had such pleasant meetings with President Donald Trump at the White House. Certainly the two leaders affirmed the importance of the Korea-US alliance and they claimed that they are working closely together to respond to the North Korean threat.
But when President Trump spoke of the “exemplary nature of the US-ROK Alliance” it seemed so distant from what he had said previously as to raise serious doubts about whether such pleasantries mean much at all. President Trump’s willingness to let South Korea play a “leading role” in setting the stage for the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula may only last until the next presidential Tweet.
Now that the summit is over, it is time to ask the tough questions. Although the carefully planned meetings and speeches were visually effective, we need to ask ourselves whether close coordination with the Trump administration on security and diplomatic policy is wise for the Moon administration?
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France, went out of their way to define a marked difference in policy from the start. Although these moves made for some awkward moments, the French and Germans think it was the right response in that there were no false expectations given and the disagreements were in the open, not behind closed doors.
Fuzzy words about “high-level strategic consultation mechanism” are meaningless if the Trump administration has no interest or concern for strategy or consultation. The Trump administration has stripped the State Department and Department of Defense of qualified Asia experts and filled key positions with personal loyalists, undoing the civil service tradition of the federal government dating back to Ulysses Grant.
Foreign Relations magazine described Trump as the death knell for the liberal global order established by Franklin Roosevelt after the Second World War, stating that he is “present at the destruction.”
Moreover, Trump’s embrace of an economy based on petroleum and coal is something Korea should stay as far away from as possible. Although every important scientist has stated, based on scientific evidence, that climate change is the greatest threat for humanity, and nations such as China, Germany and France have embraced renewable energy as the key to future development, Trump is leading the United States in the wrong direction. Korea must bravely choose to embrace the post-carbon economy and must recognize that falling behind in the design and manufacture of electric cars, solar panels and wind power could end up destroying Korea’s economic future.
Sadly, President Moon has barely mentioned the word “climate change” and made no effort to meet with the policy figures who identify this crisis as the overriding priority for both countries.
Also, the Trump administration has flamed racist tendencies in the United States, and actively promoted anti-Muslim immigration policies. Perhaps some Koreans think that such developments have little to do with Korea. That would be a tragic assumption. Anti-immigrant sentiments are already impacting Asian students and residents in the United States.
Koreans are already suffering as a result. It would have been perfectly legitimate for President Moon to express his concerns about these developments, and would have won him the respect of many outside of the White House.
No degree of political magic will bring together Trump’s push for increased economic sanctions on North Korea, and on Chinese firms, with Moon’s plans for engagement with Pyongyang. Putting off the inevitable split between the administrations is more likely to create even deeper problems further down the road. As Machiavelli once said, “If you are going to give bad news, give it all at once.” President Moon had an obligation to articulate a different perspective in a logical and respectful manner.
President Moon will be facing a figure as problematic as President Trump in the future, United States Ambassador to Korea, Victor Cha. Whereas the ambassador to Korea was a position held by important political and intellectual figures like James Laney or Donald Gregg in the past, Victor Cha is seen as more of a political operator whose writings about North Korea are more sensationalist than scientific.
It is time for Korea to focus on meaningful long-term cooperation with the United States. Korea has tremendous expertise in industrial policy and in administrative know-how that would be greatly appreciated by many Americans. For example, at a time when the United States is facing a crisis with police violence, Korea has established a model for expert policing in response to the Gwanghwamun demonstrations. American police have much to learn from the best practices of Korean police.
Finally, we must put our efforts into long-term relations. We should work to make Korean a foreign language taught in American high schools and colleges and make sure that Korean studies programs across the United States flourish. There is maybe an American girl in high school right now who loves K-Pop and who, with the proper encouragement, will become an expert in Korean politics and society, learn to speak fluent Korean and may become president, or secretary of state, in the future. We should start to focus our efforts on people like her.