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[Jeffrey Robertson] Korea as Trump’s low-hanging fruit

Defense Secretary James Mattis reiterated one message on his visit to Seoul – the US is concerned about North Korea and is committed to the defense of South Korea. The message alleviated government fears and satiated public concerns. Fear and denial regarding Trump subsided. But while South Korea focused on the Mattis visit, Trump’s diplomacy on the global stage showed us that complacency is not an option.

On Jan. 28, 2017, the first call between US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ended abruptly with Trump hanging up 25 minutes into a one-hour call. Trump is reported to have stated that the call was the worst on a day during which he spoke to four other leaders, including Vladimir Putin.

Australia, a country that has fought alongside the US in every war since WW1, has more troops on the ground fighting the Islamic State group than any other ally, and shares similar commitments to liberal market democratic institutions. Shared sacrifices, allies, cultural ties – there are no “special relationships” in the Trump era. South Korea should be prepared lest it become Trump’s low-hanging fruit.

Trump’s foreign policy election promises were grand – so grand that few believed they would reach beyond the election period. Trump made three major foreign policy promises – a reassessment of American commitments to allies; renegotiation of free trade agreements; and an end to currency manipulation – between other policy commitments of building walls, exterminating IS and making America great again. Within the first weeks of the Trump administration, it’s clear that achieving these promises will be difficult.

It’s already clear that there are distinct differences of opinion between the White House and the State Department. First, a record number of around 900 State Department officials let their dissatisfaction be known through signing their names to a dissent cable criticizing Trump’s immigration ban. The internal dissent led the White House to call for State Department officials who opposed Trump’s policies to quit.

Second, the option of fight or flight faced by State Department officials is not an either/or option. Diplomats can also ride out the administration and merely slow down or even bury poor policies in bureaucracy. Third, and most important, Trump already appears to give less credence to the capacity of the State Department to provide advice and implement his agenda. As a result, US foreign policy will be more centralized and more personal than ever before. This presents a risk to Korea.

South Korea is at risk of becoming Trump’s low-hanging fruit. Trump’s three major foreign policy promises find an easy target in South Korea. Reassessing alliance commitments to NATO or even Japan will be more difficult than reassessing the alliance commitment to South Korea. Renegotiating FTAs in which the US secures substantial benefit or requires multiple partners, such as NAFTA will be more difficult than renegotiating the KORUS FTA.

Taking on countries accused of currency manipulation, such as Germany, Japan or China, will be substantially more difficult than South Korea. Even if South Korea is not the initial target, it will be an easy option for Trump to rail against and show progress – an ideal patsy.

Further, South Korea is at the moment ill prepared to meet the challenges that may come with Trump. The foreign policy bureaucracy is frozen. The risks that come with politicization of the bureaucracy have come to the fore as the impeachment process plays out. Political appointees made by the Park administration unavoidably affect the capacity of the ministry to address the challenges presented by the Trump administration.

On top of this, there is an impact upon morale. Successfully representing your country overseas requires a degree of confidence and belief that what you are advocating promotes and strengthens the nation. The political turmoil in Seoul inevitably raises questions in the minds of those on the frontlines of diplomacy.

Being Trump’s low-hanging fruit may ultimately fall into the lap of those who have long been pushing for a distancing of relations with the US. With the presidential race well underway, and only one clear-cut leading candidate, new policy options may open. Similar options are being looked at in other US partner states. These options revolve around the dichotomous alliance risks of entrapment and abandonment.

Debate in Australia on the wisdom and even safety of being a close US partner under Trump has increased. Much like Korea, Australia fears being drawn into conflict with China. Australia and Korea share the challenge of having China as a primary economic partner and the US as a primary security partner.

Even lending vocal support to the US in an international disagreement comes with risk for Australia and Korea. Taking policy action or even promising to take policy action heightens this risk – as Korea is well aware as a result of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system. Trump’s unpredictability makes entrapment a real concern.

Debate in Australia on the potential of the US withdrawing its alliance commitments has also increased. While Australia does not face the same immediate threat within its region as Korea does, it is intrinsically assumed that the US will always be there. There is now talk that the Australian defense department is actively looking at what it would mean to have to defend Australian interests without the US. Such thoughts are equally disconcerting and distant to South Korean strategists. Trump’s unpredictability makes abandonment an equally real concern.

Fears of entrapment and abandonment bring us back to the visit of Defense Secretary Mattis. The visit of Mattis to Seoul was the Trump administration’s first cabinet level overseas visit. The visit may be reassuring, and the promise of an “effective and overwhelming response” to North Korean provocations, convincing. But ultimately, Trump’s diplomacy on the global stage shows complacency is no longer an option.

By Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is a visiting fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University and an assistant professor at Yonsei University in South Korea. He is author of “Diplomatic Style and Foreign Policy: A Case Study of South Korea.” –Ed.