January 23, 2017 12:56
Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States on Saturday. The theme of his inaugural address was "America first" at the expense of pretty much everything else. He vowed to keep other countries from taking American jobs and business away, following up on thinly-veiled threats to pressure American and foreign companies to invest in the U.S.
Trump has made clear that he wants to improve ties with Russia and keep China in check, challenging Beijing's One China policy just a day after his election victory and threatening to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports or take other retaliatory measures. Soon, South Korea too could feel the new president's hostile attitude toward free trade.
Trump knows nothing about Korea, and neither do his aides, who are mostly business executives. That might well lead them to view the South Korea-U.S. alliance purely from a profit-driven perspective rather than considering the bigger strategic value of the relationship.
The issue of sharing the cost of maintaining U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula is open to negotiations, but the U.S. government may no longer consider it necessary to maintain them here at all if that means making short-term sacrifices. If that happens, the half-century-old alliance would be seriously shaken.
If South Korea's relationship with the U.S. chills at a time when China is increasing retaliatory pressure on Seoul, it will find itself between a rock and a hard place. And if China decides to sabotage international sanctions against North Korea, the South could be in for a major shock.
The U.S. under Trump is not the America the world has for better or worse grown used to. The America that was open to talks to narrow differences and understood Seoul's concerns and fears, while placing the utmost value on the alliance may be gone.
Of course U.S. foreign policy will not change overnight. But already the vast ship has started shifting directions. What direction exactly it will take remains to be seen.
South Korea, too, will soon have a new president. An unfamiliar U.S. leadership confronting a new South Korean president could lead to major uncertainties. There are mountains of issues that need to be tackled, ranging from the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile battery here to the bilateral FTA, the cost of maintaining U.S. troops here and the handover of wartime military control. But who will tackle them?
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