Three days into his presidency, new South Korean leader Moon Jae-In seems determined to prove me wrong in warning that his election could further undermine an American grand strategy toward Asia, and North Korea in particular, that’s already in big trouble.
As I’ve written repeatedly on RealityChek, well before South Korea’s snap presidential election this past Tuesday, the nuclear umbrella extended by Washington for decades over the South and Japan had started creating an unacceptable risk of nuclear attack on the American homeland. The reason: Chinese and North Korean nuclear forces were rapidly becoming able to survive even an attack by America’s own strategic warheads and retaliate by striking the United States.
Moon’s victory seemed bound to make the American position in the region even less tenable by placing in power in Seoul an opponent of the U.S. decision to de-nuclearize the North through a combination of military threats and economic pressure.
So even recognizing that politicians don’t always govern like they campaign, I’ve been surprised to read about several instances in recent days of Moon staying on the reservation. To be sure, President Trump lent a helping hand, making the first call by a foreign head of state to congratulate Moon on his win and inviting him to the United States for an official visit. For his part, Moon declared that “The U.S.-South Korea alliance is the foundation of our foreign policy, and will continue to be so.”
But independent of this conversation came some Moon moves apparently aimed at calming fears of a major rift with the United States. Even before speaking with Mr. Trump, Moon declined explicitly to blame him for the recent escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula, preferring to describe his predecessor in Seoul’s Blue House as the main culprit. The new president also passed up a chance to demand an apology from the United States for supporting a bloody South Korean crackdown on dissidents in the city of Gwangju in 1980 – a distinct sore point with many Koreans today.
Perhaps most strikingly, right after North Korea unleashed a strident criticism of a new U.S.-supplied missile defense system in the South that’s viewed by Moon and many of his compatriots with major reservations, a Moon spokesperson stated that the new president had told China that resolving this controversy depended on the North refraining from further “provocation.”
All the same, Washington should still remain worried about Moon and South Korea going rogue. According to Stanford University Korea specialist Daniel Sneider, Moon hasn’t closed the door completely on reopening the issue of the missile system (known as THAAD) – which is partly aimed at protecting American military forces helping to defend South Korea from North Korean attack. More seriously, Sneider writes, Moon is contemplating building alongside THAAD “an indigenous Korean Air and Missile Defense system, which would not be linked to the U.S. and Japanese missile defense architecture….”
That possibility surely would be unacceptable to the United States, as it would at the least complicate the cooperation between the U.S. and South Korean militaries that would be vital in order to defeat the North in a conflict. Even more stunning, says Sneider, Moon favors creating “a preemptive-strike system armed with South Korean ballistic missiles” – a total nonstarter with Americans, as it would make the security of U.S. forces, and by extension that of the American homeland, dangerously dependent on the decisions of a foreign government.
Nevertheless, a greater role for South Korea in dealings with the volatile and unpredictable North is a centerpiece of Moon’s platform. His objective of enabling his country to “take the initiative” on this front is entirely understandable, given its location right next door to the dictator Kim Jong Un’s fearsome arsenal of nuclear and conventional arms. Moon has also tried to reassure Washington that he would never “approach or unilaterally open talks with North Korea without fully consulting the U.S. beforehand.” Yet it’s all too easy to foresee serious disputes opening up between the two governments over when diplomacy has or hasn’t reached an impasse.
Moon’s aim of raising South Korea’s diplomatic profile also could clash with the Trump administration’s plan to rely heavily on economic muscle flexing by China, by far the North’s leading trade partner, to weaken Pyongyang’s capacity to defy its neighbors demands. On the one hand, he fears that this approach could produce an outcome to the nuclear crisis that neglects South Korean interests. On the other, however, it’s inconsistent with his more fundamental views on the economic dimensions of North Korea diplomacy.
For the United States has long hoped that potent enough sanctions would help force Pyongyang into negotiating an end to its nuclear program, and the Trump administration has ratcheted up military threats as well. In fact, sanctions on North Korea have repeatedly been approved by the entire international community. Moon has said he recognizes the need for continued sanctions of some kind, but was a top aide to one of the South Korean presidents of the 1990s who pursued a so-called “Sunshine Policy” of economic engagement with the North. Not surprisingly, he’s spoken much more often about promoting North Korean reform by expanding his country’s trade with and investment in his Stalinist neighbor than about the role of economic clamps.
Finally, the United States has struggled to shore up the anti-North Korea front by persuading South Korea and Japan to overcome deep and historic animosities and cooperate more extensively in security affairs. But in this respect, Moon has been quite the hard-liner. Specifically, he has opposed even the limited intelligence sharing with Tokyo begun by his predecessor out of unhappiness with the 2015 bilateral agreement to resolve a dispute triggered by Japan’s colonial and wartime practices of forcing Korean women to serve Japanese soldiers and officials as prostitutes (who were euphemistically called “comfort women).
The point here is not to criticize (or praise) Moon’s positions or priorities. As I emphasized in this post’s forerunner, there are any number of reasons for taking South Koreans’ views in general on North Korea with the utmost seriousness. After all, they live right next door. If mistakes are made in handling the North, they’ll suffer the worst consequences by far.
But if Moon, their new leader, is wrong, Americans would suffer fearsome consequences, too – including a retaliatory nuclear strike that could destroy one or more American cities. Even worse, this catastrophe could well stem from South Korea’s failure to spend adequately on its own defense, and consequent heavy reliance on the U.S. commitment – even though it lives in one of the most dangerous regions on earth, and even though it’s exponentially wealthier than the North. And of course, because the United State doesn’t live right next door, or even close, the upside to its own security of its current Korea and broader Asia strategy pales by comparison.
Which is why even had South Koreans chosen a more traditional leader, I would still so strongly favor letting them – and leaders and citizens of even wealthier Japan and other nearby countries – realize Moon-like ambitions, take control of their own destinies, and handle North Korea and other possible threats however they see fit.
But since it’s completely unreasonable – at best – to expect Americans to pay for the Asians’ mistakes if they’re wrong, and war breaks out anyway, Washington should withdraw these forces well before the locals take charge. The end of American military involvement would bring the added and immense benefit of removing the threat of a North Korean nuclear strike – because the United States wouldn’t be taking any actions that would fuel North Korean ire and trigger retaliation.
It’s a clear case of power creating responsibility. Especially if Moon wants more of the former for South Korea, he’ll have to accept more of the latter – for its own security. And if he’s not willing to step up, Washington should make the decision for him.