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Trump and a Troubled Ally

eye on the news

Trump and a Troubled Ally

The president makes his first trip to South Korea during a year of rising tensions on the peninsula. November 7, 2017
Politics and law
Public safety

In the dank, cramped confines of Tunnel Number Three, deep under the village of Panmunjom, beads of water drip onto my nose and shoulders from the craggy rock just above my head. As I wind my way along a mile of ever-narrower passageway some 250 feet below ground, I’m grateful for the hardhat that my South Korean guide has provided. At the tunnel’s end are a steel door and a concrete barricade. I stare through the door’s small square window to a second door—the one that leads to North Korea.

More than 40 years ago, North Korea secretly dug this and at least three other “tunnels of aggression” so that its soldiers and spies could infiltrate the South. The South Koreans found this one in 1978; there may be as many as 20 more, my guide says. Tunnel Three is the highlight of my tour of the now-infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 156-mile-long zone that separates prosperous, free South Korea from the impoverished, oppressed North. 

Unlike other U.S. presidents, Donald J. Trump is not scheduled to visit the DMZ during his first visit to South Korea on Tuesday and Wednesday, the second stop on his five-nation, 11-day trip to Asia, or, as Trump officials now call it, the Indo-Pacific. Instead, Trump is addressing the National Assembly, South Korea’s legislature, the first U.S. leader to do so in almost 25 years. He also visited Camp Humphreys at Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, where many of the 28,500 American soldiers in South Korea are being relocated. “We want this trip to be forward-looking,” one U.S. diplomat said.

Though littered with land mines and encircled in razor wire, the zone between the rival Koreas has become one of South Korea’s most popular, if improbable, tourist attractions. You can buy a ticket for a nonexistent train to Pyongyang at the modern station built to link North and South during more hopeful times, when reunification was deemed possible. Souvenir stores abound, selling chocolate-covered DMZ soy beans and DMZ brandy, along with standard tourist kitsch—DMZ mugs, visors, T-shirts, fridge magnets, and golf balls and tees. Leave it to South Korea to turn a 2.5 mile-wide strip that is among the world’s most heavily fortified borders into a tourist center. Though the two Koreas remain technically at war—the Korean War ended in 1953 in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty—the contrast between the barbed wire-encased zone and the DMZ’s breezy, almost carefree commercial spirit is surreal. 

In Seoul, capital of the world’s 11th-largest economy, few Koreans seem to dwell on the possibility that war with the North could erupt, whether intentionally or accidentally. Stores, restaurants, and bars are full. South Korea is unique in having gone from being a recipient of foreign aid to a donor of aid in one generation. Despite rising geopolitical tensions and a high rate of youth unemployment, South Korea’s economy is growing at its fastest pace in more than seven years.

Yet officials at the presidential Blue House seem as worried about President Trump’s red-hot rhetoric directed at North Korean president Kim Jong-Un, or “Little Rocket Man,” as Trump has taken to calling him, as they are about Kim’s ambitious nuclear-weapons program and ongoing ballistic-missile tests. Trump has warned that he would act with “fire and fury” if President Kim attacks America. “Is he crazy enough to attempt a pre-emptive strike?” one adviser to South Korean president Moon Jae-In asked me during my week-long stay in the Korean capital. Could Trump’s brash rhetoric and inexperience in foreign affairs “provoke an accidental, unintended conflict?” he wondered. “If there is a war, we’ll be the ones to suffer,” he added. The adviser said that Moon did not believe that Kim Jung-un was “irrational,” or that war between the two rival Koreas was imminent. “North Korea doesn’t say it wants to wipe out South Korea,” he said. “They just want you off the peninsula.” Despite what Kim says, “reunification is not his goal, at least not in the short run.”

At the same time, Korean officials also seem worried about being abandoned by America. At an international conference in Seoul last month, Bruce Klingner, a veteran intelligence official now at the Heritage Foundation, said that Trump should use the talks in Seoul to reassure Korean officials. “We will be there for you—‘Kachi Kapsida,’” he said, quoting the extended deterrence slogan in Korean, “We go together.” Klingner hopes that Trump’s visit will quash another “bad idea”: growing calls from some Korean conservatives, including South Korea’s defense minister, for the U.S. to bolster South Korean defenses by redeploying some of the 100 tactical nuclear weapons the U.S. kept in Korea until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush withdrew them and all other tactical nuclear arms. Moon rejected the idea. Kim Dong-jo, Moon’s spokesman, said that his government’s “firm stance” on a “nuclear-free peninsula remains unchanged.”

Moon seems increasingly frustrated by his junior status in the U.S.–South Korean alliance. He was elected in May promising to reengage with North Korea and stand up to Washington “if necessary,” but Kim Jung-un has been unresponsive to his diplomatic overtures, leaving Moon little choice but to stand with Trump—prompting charges within his left-wing party that he is an American puppet. Partly in response, Moon has reached out to Chinese president Xi Jinping. Last week, Moon and Xi agreed to end their dispute over Beijing’s opposition to South Korean deployment of the U.S. defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. China has sanctioned South Korean businesses, particularly in tourism, cosmetics, and entertainment, and the drop in Chinese tourists to South Korea in the first nine months of the year cost Seoul $6.5 billion in revenue. Now Beijing has agreed to lift the unofficial economic sanctions, on the condition that Seoul agree not to expand THAAD any further.

Moon will meet with Xi again at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam later this week. Several Korean analysts predict that Moon will continue reaching out to Beijing if his concerns about dysfunction in Washington worsen. Koreans are “not anti-American,” says Kim Jin-Hyun, chairman of the World Peace Forum, but “they are not pro-American either”—especially young Koreans, among whom nationalism and anti-American sentiment is deepening. Few young Koreans, Kim says, realize that China would “never treat us as truly independent.”

Another likely item on the Trump agenda is South Korea’s desire for greater control of its military forces in the event of war, and its wish for a veto over American military action against North Korea. An agreement dating back to the 1950s puts Korean forces under U.S. command in the event of war. In his speech last week, Moon said that the use of force against Pyongyang “shall not be taken” absent South Korean consent. Michael Auslin, an Asia expert at the Hoover Institute, considers Moon’s intense focus on getting North Korea back to the negotiating table a “mistake,” though he concedes that military options are unpalatable. While Moon strongly opposes military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, he recently endorsed the largest annual increase in South Korea’s military budget in nearly a decade and vowed to maintain his country’s “overwhelming military superiority.”

Moon has also worked closely with the U.S. to step up sanctions. This fall, both Moon and Trump have sanctioned eight North Korean banks and more than two dozen North Korean nationals working in China, Russia, and Libya, and another set of secondary sanctions is expected to emerge from the Trump-Moon talks. Even many Trump critics acknowledge that his reversal of Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” on North Korea is overdue. “Maximum pressure” on Pyongyang “is the right policy,” said Gary Samore, a former Obama adviser. But Blue House officials were relieved there were no surprises from President Trump. “It’s good to be unpredictable,” says Christopher Hill, a former diplomat and North Korea negotiator, “but to your foes, not your allies.”

Photo by Jeon Heon-Kyun - Pool /Getty Images

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