This is a local re-post of an op-ed I wrote this month for The National Interest. There’s been a minor freak-out on the right since Moon Jae In got elected. He’s a communist; he’s gonna sell out SK to Pyongyang; the alliance with America might break. Good grief. Enough with the hyperventilating. Even if he was a communist at heart, he couldn’t govern that way because he only won 41% of the vote. He doesn’t have the political space to govern as some far lefty. And realistically, he’s just a social democrat: he wants to raises taxes, expand the public sector labor force, and clean up the air. That’s hardly a marxist revolution.
I do think that there is a possibility of a real split at the top though. It is easy to see Trump and Moon loathing one another. So this essay notes how previous US and SK presidents of different political beliefs stumbled through. The short version is that there is a lot of depth to the US-SK alliance. So much actually, that it almost makes presidential changes irrelevant, which is not exactly democratic if you think about it. But the point is, that the alliance will likely survive.
The full essay follows the jump:
This week’s South Korean presidential election has ignited concern about the US-South Korean alliance. A liberal, Moon Jae-In, has won the South Korean presidency. President Moon has a long track-record advocating engagement with North Korea. US President Donald Trump – to the extant that he has a fixed North Korea policy – is a hawk. He has used far more belligerent language to address the North than previous American administrations. And there is general ideological gap between them. Moon is a social democrat, while Trump appears to be jettisoning his populism in favor of traditional Reaganism.
Moon and Trump are also quite different characters. Moon is a buttoned-up, serious policy wonk with a long history of political engagement. His views are broadly known and fairly stable. Trump, by contrast, is flamboyant, amateurish, and prone to dramatically policy swings. It is easy to see these two falling out, indeed perhaps, loathing one another. In character and policy, they are about as far apart as one can be within the realm of democratic politics.
There is precedent, however, for this wide diversion between the allies’ heads of state. South Korea’s last liberal president, Roh Moo-Hyun governed at the same time as US Republican President George W. Bush. There were persistent rumors that the two disliked each other, and that Roh particularly disdained Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Then too, personality and ideological cleavages overlapped, making summitry and alliance management challenging. In the late 1970s, military dictator Park Chung-Hee clashed badly with President Jimmy Carter and his early emphasis on human rights. At that time, there were widely shared stories that Carter hated Park.
Alliance proponents retort that the US-South Korea alliance goes beyond such personality distinctions. It has decades of history behind it, including a shared military conflict (the original Korean War). The US and South Korea militaries are deeply interwoven (rather than stove-piped, as in Japan). There is a strong consensus in the government bureaucracies of both partners in favor of alignment too. Military and diplomatic officials from both routinely fly into each other’s capitals and talk about the strength of the alliance, its depth and reach, its shared values, and so on. There is also a cottage industry of think-tanks, study centers, NGOs, and so on providing extensive track 1.5 and 2 support for the relationship.
Indeed so deep and liquid is the sub-elected level of the relationship that it almost neuters democratic control. Both Trump and Moon were elected. Both have expressed dissatisfaction with the alliance’ character. Trump has suggested that South Korea is free-riding and should pay for US missile defense in-country. Moon has talked of a ‘Korea which can say no’ to the United States. But both would likely encounter massive bureaucratic resistance if they push these themes hard. As decades of previous ups-and-downs have suggested, the alliance is actually quite durable in the face of policy-maker variation.
Moon vs Trump?
So it is an easy prediction that the alliance will pull through. Its roots are deep. Moon is a garden-variety social democrat, hardly the communist subversive conservatives are making him out to be. And Trump is increasingly discounted. He may talk and behave outlandishly, but world leaders are learning to simply ignore his antics. Still, there remain two immediately divisive alliance issues. While known-quantity Moon is unlikely to surprise on them, Trump’s penchant for erratic Twitter outbursts might well ignite one of these otherwise manageable concerns:
1. Missile Defense: The US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system is now in Korea. The US pushed hard for its installation, and South Korean conservatives supported deployment. Moon has prevaricated over this. His dovish party dislikes it; they claim it pointlessly provokes North Korea and China, and is unnecessary. Moon personally would probably like to remove the system, but as I have argued in these pages before, THAAD has now acquired a political symbolism which exceeds its military function. China has publicly bullied South Korea over THAAD, demanding that it be withdrawn. For South Korea to expel THAAD now, under Chinese threat, would suggest that China has a veto over South Korean national security decisions. No president, not even on the left, can afford the perception of knuckling under to China. Moon will therefore likely retain THAAD – unless Trump continues to insist on…
2. Free-Riding: Trump has brought the issue of allied burden-sharing from the fringe of the US alliance debate to its heart. On THAAD, he has suggested that South Korea pay for it, even though the original agreement charges the US with that. The system is pricey – one billion USD – and South Koreans claim it is firstly intended to shield US forces in-country, so they should not have to pay for it. On the other hand, South Korea only spends 2.6% of GDP on defense, even though without the US alliance it would likely spend three times that. There is a case for US allies, including South Korea, to do more. But if Trump frames THAAD as a zero-sum fight over dollars spent – as he apparently did with Angela Merkel – rather than as positive-sum cooperation to improve interoperability and alliance depth, he may well energize the South Korean left’s nationalism enough to eject THAAD.
Other medium-term issues will inevitably arise. If Moon’s government take a hard line with Japan over historical questions, it will roll back nearly a decade of progress and infuriate the US side, which has sought to contain these issues for a long time. Similarly, if Moon actually goes to Pyongyang, as he threatened to do so in his very first public speech as president, he will meet a wall of resistance from the American diplomatic side where there is now a consensus that North Korea is global public menace which will not honor its contracts.
In short, tensions are there but manageable. The alliance has seen heads of state with widely varying preferences before. Perhaps the greatest wildcard this time is Trump himself. His penchant for norm-breaking and theatrical shenanigans could magnify otherwise controllable issues into a nasty breach. This is still unlikely to end the alliance, but perhaps the few remaining US forces in Korea would be withdrawn as a result. Nevertheless, if Trump can keep his tweeting and outbursts under control, the coming rough patch should be manageable.