Moon Has Work Cut out Dealing with Major Powers

      May 12, 2017 13:02

      President Moon Jae-in in a telephone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump, "The alliance has been the core of South Korea's diplomacy and security and it will continue to be." Trump replied that South Korea is a "not just good ally but great ally" and promised to invite Moon to his country soon.

      That restores proper communication between the two allies, which was fatally disrupted by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye late last year, paving the way for a summit as early as next month.

      Communication is urgent because Trump has made some ominous pronouncements on the US$1 billion tab for deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery here as well as the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea. Bloomberg reported that Trump was "livid... after reading in the Wall Street Journal that [National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster had called his South Korean counterpart to assure him that the president's threat to make that country pay for a new missile defense system was not official policy."

      Moon will have to prepare diligently for his meeting with Trump or the results could be sorely disappointing.

      China, meanwhile, has warmly welcomed Moon's election win. Chinese President Xi Jinping telephoned Moon and urged him to consider how important the THAAD issue is for China and "take practical steps." Cheong Wa Dae said this was the first time a Chinese president to made a congratulatory call to a newly elected South Korean president. China worries that the THAAD system's powerful radar could be used to spy on its military activities. "An end to provocations by North Korea will make it easy to resolve the THAAD issue," Moon said.

      Looking at the transcript of the phone call, Moon's comments sound as if Seoul is willing to relinquish its defense posture against the North if Pyongyang refrains from further provocations. If that is the case, it would mark the abandonment of a key defense option to protect the country from a North Korean attack, as well as a willingness to accept Chinese interference in the country's defense affairs.

      Moon decided to send a special delegation to Beijing to discuss the THAAD issue. But they need to point out that the THAAD battery is a terminal-phase interceptor that is quite different from the more powerful system that is already deployed in Japan, which China never took any issue with.

      Beijing has so far refused to listen to Seoul's rationale, so Moon's delegation should hide nothing when they meet with Chinese officials. They must remember that the international community is watching this conflict develop. Moon has already complained about China's economic retaliation, and the delegation must make it clear that such tactics are not going to work.

      The telephone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed differences in opinion between Seoul and Tokyo about a deal struck by Park over the compensation for victims of wartime sex slavery. Moon has vowed to renegotiate the agreement, which indirectly compensates the victims without admitting clear responsibility, but Abe is not likely to accept that.

      This means Korea may have to scrap the deal unilaterally, and that will have huge repercussions. Moon left room for a possible solution by saying "past history must not impede the development of bilateral relations." Ties with Japan are not be taken lightly, since they directly affect relations with Washington. The new administration has its work cut out.

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