Leave to the psychoanalysts the question why Korea seems to provoke President Trump to more reckless comments than any other international problem. What the world must live with are the consequences.
Again and again since Inauguration Day, Donald Trump has said and tweeted provocative denunciations not only of North Korea, but also of America’s supposed ally, South Korea.
In April 2017, on the eve of South Korean presidential elections, the president gave an interview to Reuters that punched two sensitive points. He threatened to rip up the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. “It is unacceptable, it is a horrible deal made by Hillary,” he said. “It’s a horrible deal, and we are going to renegotiate that deal or terminate it.” In that same interview, Trump demanded a billion-dollar payment for a high-altitude missile defense system. That demand reneged on an agreement reached by Trump’s own administration, by which the South Koreans provided the land for the system and the United States provided the weapons. It probably will not surprise you to learn that the free-trade agreement was not, in fact, negotiated by Hillary Clinton. Most of the work was done under President George W. Bush. The agreement then stalled in Congress after the Democratic victories of 2006, until President Obama’s trade negotiators revised it to provide more advantages for U.S. automakers. Accurate or not, Trump’s comments sent South Korean stock and currency markets into a tumble.
Trump’s pique with South Korea might be explained by an embarrassment he had suffered in the country two weeks earlier. Apparently misunderstanding a Pentagon briefing, Trump had boasted in an April 12 Fox Business interview that he was personally and immediately sending a “very powerful” “armada” into Korean waters to menace North Korea. That armada—the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and support vessels—was then photographed thousands of miles away heading in the opposite direction, passing between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra en route toward India. Trump’s mistake was criticized by South Korean politicians and mocked in the South Korean media. The Reuters interview may have been payback.
That interview had the unintended effect of helping to boost the more U.S.-skeptical of the South Korean presidential candidates in the May 9 election. In midsummer, speaking at his New Jersey golf retreat without a single South Korean present, Trump promised to visit “fire and fury like the world has never seen” upon North Korea. In September at the United Nations he warned that he might “totally destroy North Korea,” adding “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his region.”
As a candidate for president, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in had opposed the deployment of missile defenses, urging negotiation with the North instead. Now as president, this conciliation-minded leader—already inclined toward skepticism of the United States—daily confronts a new strategic reality: His country’s most important security partner seems determined to confirm every negative attitude about the U.S. held by nationalist South Koreans. The Moon government has responded with a flurry of overtures toward the North.
Together, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump are enabling the North Korean nuclear program to evolve into a mighty diplomatic weapon against U.S. interests, separating South Korea from the United States, incentivizing the South to placate the North. Together, Kim and Trump are depriving the U.S. of conventional military options—because there is no non-nuclear option against the North without the support of the South. Between 2015 and 2017, South Korean confidence in the United States to do the right thing in international affairs has dropped by a startling 71 points in a Pew survey. Only 17 percent of South Koreans have confidence Donald Trump—less than half the number that trust China’s Xi Jiaoping.
And who is Xi’s best publicist? Why, Donald Trump himself. Trump has often told the world that it is China, not the United States, that has the most leverage over North Korea. He tweeted in 2013, “North Korea is reliant on China. China could solve this problem easily if they wanted to but they have no respect for our leaders.” And as president too, he has looked to China first and foremost to sway North Korea. He tweeted in July 2017: “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
The thought is bound to occur to South Koreans increasingly wary of Trump’s protectionism, unpredictability, and bellicosity: If indeed it is China that can control the North, maybe it is to China not the United States that South Koreans should look for security?
In a May 30 op-ed, White House senior advisers Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster sought to assure the world that “America First” does not mean “America alone.” In the Korean peninsula, however, increasingly that’s just what Trump has wrought. Trump’s warlike boasting is steadily leading the United States toward the starkest and most extreme dilemma: The only policies remaining will be a unilateral nuclear strike upon the North—or humbly submitting to a new Chinese-led security order in Northeast Asia.