Japan, South Korea Shaken by Pyongyang, Beijing – And Now, Washington

Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

South Korea and Japan are attempting to maintain business as usual in their alliances with the U.S., but the Trump Administration has not made this easy. A gap between President Donald Trump’s unpredictable comments and the more measured statements of his top Cabinet members has made building relations difficult.

As one of his first acts as South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in dispatched special envoy Hong Seok-hyun to the United States to meet with Trump and many of his senior officials. After months without a president, South Korea wishes to set the vital U.S. alliance on the right course at a time of increased tensions over North Korea.

Months after Trump’s February meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo is still parsing the difference between candidate Trump and President Trump as it seeks to develop new economic ties with the U.S. in light of the end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its own concerns over North Korea.

America’s two most important East Asian allies want a return to the stability they have come to expect from U.S. East Asia policy.

South Korea’s new Administration has attempted to make up for lost time and forge ties with the Trump Administration on security and economic issues, but Trump’s comments on two key issues for Seoul during the South Korean election have added a hurdle.

Trump said in April that South Korea should pay the $1 billion cost of the THAAD missile defense system. This would have violated the terms of the original deal between the U.S. and South Korea, and it caused outrage among many citizens, prompting the South Korean newspaper the Chosun Ilbo to run the headline “Trump’s mouth rattling Korea-US alliance.”  

Trump’s comment during the South Korean election on a contested issue prompted speculation that he could have shifted some votes in Moon’s favor, as Moon had called for revisiting the terms of the deal and capitalized on anti-THAAD sentiment.

While Trump’s words caused a backlash among the South Korean public, his National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster, told his South Korean counterpart that the U.S. would honor the terms of the THAAD agreement. Neither the episode, nor any mention of THAAD, came up during Hong’s visit, although Moon still intends to revisit the agreement.

A similar episode occurred over the U.S.- South Korean free-trade agreement. Trump railed against the pact as a candidate, stated, “We may seek to terminate [the agreement]” in April, and in early May called it a “horrible deal” in an interview with The Economist. By contrast, during his visit to Seoul in April, Vice President Mike Pence said the U.S. would only seek to “reform” the FTA.

While less provocative than the THAAD statement, Trump’s comments over the FTA still prompted an outpouring of support for the deal from Korean and American businesses alike. Like THAAD, the FTA did not come up between Hong and Trump Administration officials, leaving continued uncertainty for Seoul on how the U.S. will proceed.

This uncertainty could stifle the Moon Administration’s efforts to maintain and improve alliance relations and even bleed into his domestic support. Before sending Hong – and other diplomatic envoys to China, Russia, and Japan – Moon stressed that each envoy “emphasize [to each country] that political legitimacy and transparency have become extremely important.” In the wake of the Park Geun-hye impeachment, Moon seeks policy clarity on these important security and economic issues so he can, in turn, display transparency to South Korean citizens. With mixed messages coming from the Trump Administration, this will likely be difficult.

Trump Administration mixed messaging has also confused policymakers in Tokyo. Kuni Miyake, the president of the Tokyo-based think tank, the Foreign Policy Institute, told The Cipher Brief that some in Japan “wonder whether the Trump Administration has truly sensible, consistent and reliable foreign policy vis-a-vis East Asia in general and China/North Korea.”

Japan is still reeling from the loss of TPP – a vital part of its economic growth plan – and is seeking economic partnerships with the U.S. to replace it. Some fear that Abe’s victory in establishing a rapport with Trump could be overshadowed by the successful summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump reversed his stance on many China issues – he will no longer seek to label Beijing a currency manipulator, for example – and opened the door for greater economic cooperation. With no TPP and China as a competitor for U.S. favor on economic issues, Tokyo may have to seek other options while watching for further changes in Trump Administration policy.

The issue of watching and waiting for changes in Trump policy is complicated by what Miyake sees as an Administration that still seems to switch between “campaigning mode” and “governing mode.” Miyake said “He seems to be … somewhere in between, and he could also be flip-flopping every few days. This is what I am most concerned about.”

For years, unpredictability in East Asia was driven primarily by North Korea’s provocations and China’s rise, and through that, the U.S. presence was a source of stability for South Korea and Japan. Today the scenario is more complicated. Seoul’s new Administration is motivated by a desire to improve government transparency and reset the North Korea relationship while Tokyo wants stable policy for economic growth. A U.S. presence without predictable policy further complicates these goals.

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