Trump's Visit Is a New Benchmark for Bilateral Alliance
U.S. President Donald Trump is visiting South Korea as tensions remain high on the peninsula. In this context, President Moon Jae-in's visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek to welcome the U.S. leader was highly symbolic. Not only is Camp Humphreys the biggest American military installation outside the U.S., but South Korea shouldered 92 percent of the US$10.7 billion that went into building it. It houses more than 40,000 U.S. military personnel and their families. It was at this base that the two leaders reaffirmed their strong alliance in front of soldiers from both countries.
Trump said during his summit with Moon on Tuesday that three U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines were dispatched to waters off South Korea and added that he hopes they will not be used. That was a strong message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to come to the negotiating table. Trump also sought to calm fears that the U.S. may be bypassing South Korea in dealing with North Korea. "South Korea … is very important to me and there will be no skipping South Korea. I can tell you that right now," he said.
Contrary to concerns that Trump will take an aggressive stance on trade issues, the U.S. leader merely expressed his view that talks to revise the bilateral free trade agreement that went into effect in 2012 should proceed quickly and in a reciprocal manner. While asserting that the trade imbalance between the two countries need to be resolved, Trump thanked Seoul for agreeing to pursue the revisions.
Some parts of the visit left more something to be desired. Actual talks between Moon and Trump lasted only 55 minutes. Cut out the time needed for interpretation and there was perhaps half an hour of conversation -- hardly enough to settle any major issues.
Trump also hailed South Korea's purchase of billions of dollars' worth of U.S. weapons which would lead to more American jobs. South Korea is buying the weapons because it needs them, and the U.S. does not sell them to just anyone who has the money. But Trump is not a polished speaker, and his boastful claims -- "South Korea will be ordering billions of dollars of that equipment, which, frankly, for them makes a lot of sense and for us it means jobs, it means reducing our trade deficit with South Korea" -- which were clearly aimed at American voters, were apt to be misunderstood here.
Allies cannot be by each other's side constantly, and alliances can turn sour. The Seoul-Washington alliance, forged in 1953, has remained steadfast and supported South Korea's rapid economic development from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War. It was therefore fortunate that Moon quelled fears that Seoul is pivoting away from Washington and toward Beijing. "So on bringing balance in our diplomatic approaches, this is not about our stance vis-à-vis the United States and China," Moon said.
The North Korean nuclear menace will continue to test the alliance in the future. Seoul must be prepared for these trials and never forget the value of the alliance. Nobody should be allowed to let cracks develop. Trumps first visit to South Korea should serve as a benchmark for easing such concerns.