Seoul Must Stay on Trump's Good Side

      April 02, 2018 14:03

      U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday that he could postpone signing revisions to the free trade agreement with South Korea until he has secured a deal with North Korea. "You know why?" he asked a blue-collar audience in Richfield, Ohio. "Because it's a very strong card."

      It took a while for South Koreans to figure out what he meant, if indeed he meant anything. It sounded like a warning, but it was difficult to tie the South Korea-U.S. FTA with the North Korean nuclear impasse. Trump seems to be saying that if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not show a clear willingness to follow through on his pledge to scrap his nuclear weapons, the U.S. will put greater trade pressure on South Korea. But why should South Korea has to shoulder the responsibility for North Korea's actions?

      South Korea, the U.S., North Korea and China are engaged in a complicated game of diplomatic maneuvering over the North's nuclear weapons program. The world has caught a glimpse of the North Korean leader's true intentions as Kim dusted off his father's old salami-slicing tactics of eking out small tit-for-tat concessions in return for dismantling his nuclear program.

      Trump could be thinking that Cheong Wa Dae is ready to buy into North Korea's tactics again. The U.S. is pushing for a speedy, "Libyan" style solution of "complete, verifiable and irreversible" denuclearization of North Korea, but one Cheong Wa Dae official said Friday, "I believe a 'Libyan' style solution to North Korea would be impossible." Perhaps that was enough to fan suspicions among hawkish White House officials. The Libyan style solution has been touted by White House National Security Adviser nominee John Bolton, while Cheong Wa Dae is thinking of a "package deal" involving the scrapping of the North's nuclear weapons program in exchange for a peace treaty.

      Trump's warning came as Cheong Wa Dae suggested yet another shift in its stance following Kim's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Maybe Trump is only grandstanding in front of his core supporters. But maybe he is warning Moon not to side with Kim ahead of his summit. White House officials were baffled when Trump had South Korean envoys brief reporters in early March at Washington about Kim's proposal for a summit. He was seen as saying that South Korean government officials should make the announcement since they were the ones mediating the dialogue. Now he seems to be putting even more pressure on them.

      The North Korean nuclear impasse would be tough to solve even if the U.S. and South Korea coordinated policies like clockwork. But now, Trump has begun to treat South Korea as if it was on the same side as North Korea. But Seoul has to work with Trump, whether he is entirely rational or not.

      A phased approach would require a tremendous amount of time and rewards for the North at each stage of the process. Sanctions against North Korea would crumble over a few months and would be nearly impossible to resume once they are eased. But as soon as the pressure is off, Kim will no longer feel any need to scrap his nuclear weapons and missiles. It is understandable that the government is trying to keep North Korea on course. But it cannot afford to be dragged around by his demands and miss the small window of opportunity to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons and damage its alliance with the U.S.

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