Seoul Could Suffer Fallout from Trump's Failed N.Korea Gamble

  • By Kang In-sun, the Chosun Ilbo's correspondent in Washington

    March 15, 2019 13:30

    Kang In-sun

    U.S. President Donald Trump has been sulking like a jilted lover ever since his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi collapsed last month. Various carrots he dangled in front of the North have disappeared, and U.S. government officials dealing with North Korean issues claim their demand for a "final, fully verified denuclearization" has never been watered down.

    Trump's style of diplomacy has been typified by unpredictability and the U.S. leader would suddenly shift from a dogged insistence on total denuclearization to normalizing diplomatic ties with North Korea. He could still propose a three-way summit with the two Koreas next week, but as soon as he walked out of the summit in Hanoi, Trump lost interest in Kim.

    It would be stretching it to believe that Trump pursued his North Korea policy to achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The reason he was so passionate about resolving the North Korean nuclear impasse and engaging its reclusive leader because he wanted to show the world that he achieved something no other U.S. leader was able to do. His predecessor Barack Obama barely touched the matter, selling his inactivity as "strategic patience." And Trump is largely motivated by overturning every one of Obama's achievements or doing whatever Obama would not do.

    The gamble failed. There had to be short-term results, and none were forthcoming. Trump, no keen traveler or indeed worker, flew halfway around the world twice to meet Kim, because he wanted results before his campaign for the 2020 presidential election. But the Hanoi summit was the moment of truth, where he finally realized how much sustained effort would be needed to get North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons.

    The new reality has also put Seoul-Washington relations under a looking glass. Even though Trump's denuclearization deal fell through, South Korea continues to push for reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resuming package tours to North Korea's Mt. Kumgang resort. This makes Washington uncomfortable in its new hardline approach toward North Korea.

    Diplomatic experts in Washington say the most worrying factor after the failed Hanoi summit is the U.S.-South Korea alliance. It is no longer a secret that the U.S. objects to South Korea defending the North's position. The Trump administration officially says there is nothing wrong with the alliance, but there is far too little communication with Seoul.

    Trump may try to achieve diplomatic gains through South Korea now his passion for Kim has cooled. One way is to gain the upper hand in the sharing of costs to maintain U.S. troops here. A decrease in the U.S.' share of the expenses could be packaged as a diplomatic victory in line with Trump's "America first" policy. Now the cost-sharing will have to be discussed every year, which offers Trump a chance to score political points.

    The U.S.-South Korean alliance is shifting from a pact forged in blood to a more tenuous partnership. Under Trump, even the once-vital alliance could be ruined for nothing but short-term political gain.

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