The US-Korea Alliance and the World According to Trump
Living in South Korea with my family for the past eight years has afforded me a grassroots perspective on Korean politics and the future of the US-Korea alliance. As populism changes the political landscape in the West, many wonder if similar effects will be felt in the East. The public process of dethroning President Park suggests it may. With populist hysteria associated with the transgressions of President Park and her cronies, there has been a rise of left-wing political opposition that is less sympathetic to US interests. Washington is concerned about a possible postponement (or even cancellation) of the planned 2017 deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
As a predominant economic and military power, the United States can make policy mistakes and recover relatively unaffected. But as a resource-poor middle-power, never far from the precipice, South Korea does not have the resilience to deny reality and make mistakes. Unfortunately, facts and logic do not seem highly valued in Korean policy circles. A collective state of denial of the North Korea proliferation problem has defied reason. Like status quo parties in Europe and the United States, traditional sources of political power in Korea are ill prepared to reverse patterns of perceived incompetence and trends of disaffection.
Months ago, shortly after Donald Trump made disparaging campaign remarks about the cost of the US-Korea alliance, I warned those present at a political science seminar in Seoul not to underestimate the possibility of a Trump presidency. My Korean colleagues thought I was out of touch; this could never happen. That inconvenient truths or the logical trajectory of geostrategic facts might intervene to dissuade future events seemed not to effect the normal wishful thinking of status quo political analysts in South Korea (and in the US), as they misapprehended modern vectors of change. However, mistakes in judgment have larger consequences for Korea.
Few South Korean analysts have been critical of America’s wait-and-see policy of strategic patience, as if assuming the North Korea nuclear missile threat will disappear without incident. Status quo thinkers have been unmoved by innovative ideas that might impact policy, allowing only small iterations of their own unimaginative conventional approaches. Myopic self-satisfied political leaders from both the right and left seem so wrapped in the rhetoric of there historical views and positions on North Korea that neither see the ground moving out from beneath their feet. At a time when Korea needed a strong and sophisticated leader it elected a president who consults with spirits through Shamans.
Exit Obama-Park; enter Trump. The Donald might not be well liked by half the American public, but as a spoiled self-centered billionaire who will do almost anything to win and get his way, he simply doesn’t give a damn about how things have been done in the past or what the established order thinks. In the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and the gunslingers of the Wild West, many Americans like such rough and ready tell-it-like-it-is leaders. Opponents may refer to his personal style of deal making as abrasive, even dangerous, but everyone will agree he is a man of action who commands attention; while some fear and others rejoice that he might actually get things done. Trump may have a thin understanding of how geopolitics has been conducted in East Asia, but after years of making deals, he has a thick understanding of how to employ power to get his way.
While experts predict North Korea will be able to deliver a nuclear-tipped ICBM to the US mainland at some point during the Trump presidency, many now ask how the World According to Trump will affect Koreans and the US-Korea alliance. Unlike sidestepping politicians, I will be blunt and straight to the point about an issue that really matters. While President Obama asserted the US would not consider a unilateral strike on North Korean nuclear missile sites because of the danger of a knee-jerk retaliation against Seoul, all bets are off with Trump. To protect American lives, that tens of thousands of Koreans might perish is unavoidable collateral damage. Trump does not have a liberal conscience; he is an American exceptionalist on steroids. When he says America First he means it.
Even the suggestion of unilateral action makes my Korean colleagues cringe. They will not discuss this possibility openly; it is more comforting to put ones head in the sand and to deny danger. During Obama’s tenure, few took my forewarnings seriously, even as the logical progression of this possible outcome was becoming more apparent. Indeed, Trump may not let a belligerent Kim regime obtain political leverage concordant with an ability to vaporize millions of Americans at the push of a button. And with the horror of 9/11 indelibly etched into the American psyche, why should he when a surgical military strike now may have significantly lower risks to American lives than a nuclear-ICBM endangered future?
It should be remembered that 10 years ago two former US Secretary’s of Defense advocated just such a preemptive strike, and public opinion polls suggest that even a portion of those who did not vote for Trump might approve of this action. Former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell has also reiterated this scenario, and it is doubtful incoming Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis—whom GOP hawks tried to convince to run for president—will be less proactive.
Another pending concern that may affect the US-Korea alliance, about which the conventional South Korean political establishment is in a state of denial, has to do with China. The liberal East Asian Foundation and other progressive groups have applauded China’s One Belt One Road and Maritime Silk Road initiatives (with the dubious assumption Korea will accrue some benefit), but without a realistic assessment of its economic viability. It is ironic that while Korean economists expertly manage the Korean economy, economic realities seem of little consequence to Korean political experts while stroking the China Dream.
It is presumed China’s rise and the US fall are real and permanent and that South Korea must decide which ship to board. But political dreamers are merely intoxicated with a grand idea. Most sober geoeconomic analysts predict this will be the American Century and that communist China may soon crumble under the weight and fiscal mismanagement of its corrupt authoritarian leaders. Perhaps this sanguine credulity and irrational exuberance among Korean political experts exists because crony capitalism and kleptocracy with Chinese characteristics strikes close to home—among the last six South Korean Presidents, two were impeached, two went to jail, and one committed suicide. Even before the prospects of a Trump geoeconomic rebalance, the view among many macroeconomics is that China is a sinking ship, overleveraged in every aspect of its economy, and faces if not a hard landing, a very long one—the middle income trap.
In the World According to Trump, like European free riders, Korea is expected to pay more and do more to protect its freedom and prosperity, and China is considered the ultimate freeloader; but not for much longer. Trump will likely push for trade reform, as is evident in his “get tough on China” appointments of Robert Lighthizer for US Trade Representative, Wilber Ross as Commerce Secretary, and professor Peter Navarro—a reputable anti-China agitator who wrote “Death By China”—to run the new National Trade Council. Indeed, the impact of Obama’s geopolitical rebalance may be mild compared to Trump’s geoeconomic rebalance. Jobs are the issue.
Trump promised to give Americans their jobs back; rekindling the American Dream for a millennial generation. Indeed, Trump was elected in no small measure because people think conventional political leaders have failed them; that out-of-touch Cold War curmudgeons and corporatists have misappropriated their trust and beguiled the public good will. Citizens feel lied to about matters of great importance (with conventional media complicity) and express their anger through social networks and sometimes out on the streets.
These sentiments are going global and status quo candidates from the right and the left will increasingly be surprised and confounded by new populist political personalities who appeal more directly to plebeian concerns. As the masses unite, the US-Korea alliance may become as fraught with contradictions and as complicated as the US-Philippine alliance. These inertial populist forces are larger than any one political leader, and have roots in the democratic leveling effects of the Internet and the rise of a new global conversation.
Trump merely marshaled democratic forces already in motion that made the perceived negative effects of globalization and an unfair trade relationship with China a central populist issue. The US had lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since the year 2000. As Beijing refused to open its markets to US business without onerous requirements, the US trade deficit with China ballooned to over $350 billion. Americans are realizing that importing/buying Chinese products is paying for their unemployment while bankrolling the modernization of a Chinese military that may one day kill their sons and daughters.
Answering Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call reflects an incipient geostrategic willingness by the Trump Administration to apply leverage against China for a number of perceived abuses, including unfair currency and trade practices, its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, and a reluctance to enforce sanctions against the Kim regime.
As the North Korean threat grows more menacing, Americans increasingly wonder how a country with a GDP equal to the poorest nations in Africa can afford a nuclear missile program? Who better to officially direct this question to Chinese leaders than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a pragmatic corporate dealmaker who sees national security through an economic lens.
Despite denial and deception, it is obvious China supports North Korea for geopolitical reasons, while having yet to suffer geoeconomic consequences for this preference. After establishing Pakistan as a nuclear power on one flank, China prefers a surrogate ally with nuclear muscle on its other flank. This relationship would dissolve if the Kim regime’s nuclear threat to the US and its well-documented missile exports and nuclear technology transfers to the Middle East were unacceptable to China’s larger strategic objectives. Indeed, Beijing would surely withhold support if Pyongyang started selling weapons to Xinjiang rebels or to the Dali Lama.
This analysis is based on actions, not words. Realism and Trump’s campaign promises put China’s trade and aid policies in double jeopardy. Many believe an unencumbered trade policy has not made Americans richer or safer, but harms workers while directly (China) and indirectly (North Korea) underwriting the financial and military capabilities of those who treat the United States as their enemy. It has become clear to even less educated citizens that the greatest paradox of our time is that Americans have been funding their own geopolitical and geoeconomic demise. Indeed, Trump was elected because he agrees with this populist diagnosis.
Although pending dangers remain unspoken, and no promises can be made, logical trajectories suggest Seoul must fully cooperate with Washington to pressure Beijing to stop Pyongyang, or else face the possible consequences of a US military strike against North Korean nuclear missile facilities. Unfortunately, because of inertial tendencies in international relations, it may already be too late. Perhaps the last and only possibility now to avoid military action is the fast-track solution—to bribe North Korean elites to reunify—outlined in my new book, Stop North Korea: A Radical New Approach to the North Korean Standoff.
With a populist Make America Great Again mandate, President Trump will be compelled to modernize US policy and force China to comply with fair trade policies and denuclearization in North Korea. The art of this deal is in the degree to which economic pressure must be applied to convince China to stop North Korea’s nuclear threat. For Seoul, liberal economic reengagement is no longer an option since Pyongyang is nearly ready to field a nuclear-tipped ICBM that will endanger American lives.
The US-Korea alliance is fragile at both ends. In a prolonged state of denial, South Korea has not done enough. Seoul must quickly adjust to an increasingly dangerous and complex situation, and do what it can to unify Korea now, because without forewarning, as the preponderant economic and military power in the world today, the United States has considerable leverage to achieve any security objective it deems necessary.
SHEPHERD IVERSON is a former foreign professor in the Institute for Korean Studies at Inha University. A portion of this essay was adapted from his new book, Stop North Korea! A Radical New Approach to Solving the North Korean Standoff (Tuttle 2017).