Disagreements on Trade, THAAD, and Troops Won’t Stop U.S.-Korea Alliance

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

The U.S.-South Korea alliance has supported the peace and prosperity of both nations for more than 60 years, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in revealed one more reason to be thankful for the partnership in his first state visit to the United States and first meeting with President Donald Trump last week.

During his visit to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Washington, Moon laid a wreath at the memorial for the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, one of the Korean War’s most pivotal moments. The heroism and sacrifice of U.S. Marines enabled the evacuation of 100,000 civilians, two of whom were Moon’s parents.

“If it hadn’t been for those who fought … my life would probably have never begun, and I would not be here today,” Moon said.

Although the relationship runs deep, it is not without its disagreements, many of which came to light in last week’s summit. Trump used the occasion to highlight the trade deficit with South Korea as well as the U.S. desire for more equal sharing of the costs associated with stationing the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

Trump has repeatedly voiced his objections to the current U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement and the roughly $15 billion U.S. trade deficit with South Korea adding “It’s been a rough deal for the United States but I think that it will be much different for the United States.” While Trump’s goal on trade is to improve terms for U.S. auto exports to South Korea, a renegotiation may not change South Koreans’ preference for domestic brands.

For its part, the Moon Administration has not been pleased with some U.S. actions. It believes the U.S. and the previous South Korean administration tried to rush the deployment of THAAD, a controversial missile defense system, before Moon took office in May. Moon has put a hold on completing the THAAD deployment pending an environmental impact study. Sung-yoon Lee, a Professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University told The Cipher Brief “I think this is a ruse, an excuse to buy time to forestall the complete deployment of THAAD.”

On North Korea, the largest priority of all, there is less agreement than the Trump Administration would likely prefer.

Trump has grown increasingly impatient with the lack of progress over North Korea. In the Rose Garden press conference with Moon, Trump proclaimed, “The era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed,” citing the Obama-era North Korea strategy, and, “Frankly, that patience is over.”

While South Korea is also committed to the denuclearization of North Korea, it may prefer a different path. Moon has expressed his desire to engage with North Korea, something that puts him at odds with the U.S. approach, according to Sung-yoon Lee, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. By not condemning North Korea’s many missile tests, “Moon has been working too hard to placate North Korea this year,” and because of that “I would think the Trump Administration officials … are likely to take the view that President Moon is perhaps not the most reliable ally at this point.”

In his own Rose Garden remarks, Moon said of North Korea, “We must employ sanctions and dialogue in a phased-in and comprehensive approach.” This phased approach, which calls for a freeze in the program first and dismantlement second, is more lenient than the U.S. position. The U.S. view has been that North Korea must show progress in dismantling its programs as a prerequisite for negotiations, though Moon’s phrasing in the joint statement suggests the U.S. may be open to revamping its view and considering the phased approach.

While South Korea likely understands it is better served by renegotiating the free trade agreement and basing costs for U.S. troops than to break away from these agreements, the Moon Administration cannot continue to concede to U.S. demands without severe public backlash. Public opinion in South Korea is already against the effects of the free trade agreement on South Korean industry and agriculture, not to mention the presence of U.S. troops, many of whom are stationed in downtown Seoul.

The Trump Administration should remember that its alliance with South Korea is an investment, and not transactional. Renegotiations for more favorable terms for trade and basing U.S. troops may be beneficial now, but do not serve the long-term interests of the alliance if it sways public opinion in South Korea against the United States.

Disagreements over trade, THAAD, and cost-sharing over U.S. troops have increased the friction in the alliance in recent months, though it is still not far off from the high-water mark established under the previous Obama and Park administrations. The two countries made little progress in resolving these issues, but the joint announcement on North Korea suggests the two sides remain in agreement on their most important shared priority, the North Korean threat, and that cooperation has the best chance of success.

Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.