By: Trisha Ray, Columnist
Photo Credit: MintPress News
On April 11, President Trump, in response to North Korean announcements of an impending nuclear test, announced that he was sending an ‘armada’ to Korean shores. By April 19, the armada had yet to arrive, triggering criticism in South Korea of Trump’s empty statements. The Trump administration’s diplomatic faux-pas comes at a crucial time for the US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance, as South Korea prepares for its presidential election on May 9, 2017. Based on precedents set during the 2003 election which brought the anti-US Roh Moo-hyun to power, Trump should tread with caution, as his actions in the following weeks will determine whether Washington will be dealing with a cooperative administration in Seoul, or one whose interests are not in line with its own.
The Missing Armada
In the run-up to April 15, the birthday of North Korea’s first illustrious leader Kim Il-Sung, concerns mounted in the United States, Japan, and South Korea that North Korea would conduct a nuclear test to mark the occasion.[i] In a show of strength meant to deter such an action, the US Air Force in Japan staged a massive “no-notice military exercise,” putting their F-15s, helicopters, and tankers on display.[ii] To drive home the point, President Trump declared that he was “sending an armada” to the Korean peninsula.[iii] Included in this armada was the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. By April 19, it became clear that the ‘armada’ was nowhere near the Korean peninsula, and the USS Carl Vinson was in fact off the northwest coast of Australia.
Around this time, Korean media also picked up on an interview Trump gave to the Wall Street Journal where he claimed that Korea was part of China.[iv] While not historically inaccurate, the statement was viewed as highly insensitive toward Koreans, for whom China’s drive to erase Korean history by appropriating it into Chinese local history is a precarious subject.[v]
The Effects of the Trump Administration’s Diplomatic Gaffes
South Korean perceptions of the Trump administration’s reliability have deteriorated in light of these events. On April 13, Chosun Ilbo reported fears of Trump “going rogue”—launching a preemptive strike against North Korea without Seoul’s approval.[vi] Later, on April 19, Yonhap News criticized the administration for the confusion and panic it created with its false statement about the location of the USS Carl Vinson.[vii] Should perceptions continue to deteriorate, they could ultimately impact the upcoming South Korean presidential election in ways that run counter to US interests.
South Korean public opinion during presidential elections has in the past been influenced by alliance issues. In 2003, Roh Moo-hyun was elected based in part on an anti-US rhetoric that gained popularity after the 2002 Yangju highway incident in which two South Korean girls were accidentally killed by a US armored vehicle.[viii] Undercurrents of this anti-alliance sentiment continue to surface, driven by mistrust of the United States’ intentions. As sociologist Shin Gi-wook notes, “South Korea is caught between two conflicting identities: the alliance identity that sees the United States as a friendly provider and the nationalist identity that pits Korean identity against the United States.”[ix]
Yet for Trump to effectively counter North Korea, he needs a South Korean administration whose interests align with the United States. In the event of conflict, South Korea will bear the brunt of damages and will likely provide the bulk of ground forces, thus its cooperation will be crucial. South Korea’s continued acquiescence to the installation of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is also imperative. Therefore, it stands to reason that Trump cannot take unilateral action against North Korea without consulting Seoul.
The South Korean election will determine the tone of US-ROK relations for the next five years. Among the proposed policies of the two front-runners, leftist Moon Jae-in and centrist Ahn Cheol-Soo, Moon’s platform clashes strongly with US interest and objectives. Moon, formerly the chief-of-staff to the Roh Moo-hyun administration, opposes the deployment of THAAD and has called for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.[x] Ahn, on the other hand, supports THAAD (albeit with some renegotiation) and sanctions on North Korea, but is also pro-engagement vis-à-vis the Kim regime.[xi] Of the two, Ahn is more likely to be receptive to the United States’ stance on North Korea.
Therefore, in the next few weeks, the Trump administration would do well to address the controversies it has caused over the missing armada and statements that erase Korean history. With the rise in North Korean aggression, the United States needs the cooperation of South Korea more than ever.
[i] Mark Moore, “Japan fears North Korea missile launch could be imminent,” New York Post, April 13, 2017, http://nypost.com/2017/04/13/japan-fears-north-korea-missile-launch-could-be-imminent/
David Choi, “North Korea is said to be on the verge of another nuclear test,” Business Insider, April 12, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/north-korea-threat-nuclear-missile-test-2017-4
[ii] Alex Lockie, “US and North Korea put on dueling show of air power as nuclear test looms,” Business Insider, April 13, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/f-15-elephant-walk-north-korea-china-us-air-power-show-2017-4
[iii] Julia Limitone, “Trump on North Korea Threats: We Are Sending an Armada,” Fox Business, April 12, 2017, http://www.foxbusiness.com/politics/2017/04/12/trump-on-north-korea-threats-are-sending-armada.html
[iv] Yi-jun Cho, “Trump Claims Korea ‘Was Part of China’,” Chosun Ilbo, April 20, 2017, http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2017/04/20/2017042000871.html
[v] Jae Ho Chung, “China’s “Soft” Clash with South Korea: The History of War and Beyond,” Asian Survey, Vol. 49, No. 3 (University of California Press: 2009)
[vi] Yong-weon Yu, “Fear Grow of Trump ‘Going Rogue’ on N. Korea,” Chosun Ilbo, April 13, 2017. http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2017/04/13/2017041300782.html
[vii] Aram Kim, “”온다온다” 하고 반대로 간 美칼빈슨호…착오? 의도된 전략? ,” Yonhap News, April 19, 2017, http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2017/04/19/0200000000AKR20170419104900009.HTML
[viii] Myeong-seon Jin, “생일 친구집 300m 남기고…소녀들은 스러졌다,” Hankyoreh, June 11, 2012
“Let Roh Moo-hyun speak his mind,” The Korea Herald, September 18, 2002, LexisNexis Academic. Web.
[ix] Gi-Wook Shin, One Alliance, Two Lenses (Stanford University Press, 2010), 18
[x] The Kaesong Industrial Complex was launched in the North Korean city of Kaesong in 2004. It is a duty-free zone set up by South Korea and employed 54,000 North Korean workers at its peak.
Denny Roy, “South Korea’s Incoming President Could Be Headed for a Clash With Trump,” Fortune, March 14, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/03/14/south-korea-president-park-moon-north-china-thaad-u-s/
[xi] Brian Padden, “South Korea Presidential Candidates Veering Away From US Policies,” Voice of America, April 6, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/south-korea-presidential-candidates-veering-away-from-us-policies/3798628.html