South Korea seems under siege, encountering multiple challenges in diplomacy, trade and security. It is further troubling to see US President Donald Trump, who otherwise should help his country’s longtime ally overcome the difficulties, is adding to its risk factors.
One of the risks comes from Trump’s order to rid South Korea and other “wealthy” countries of the benefit of having developing nation status under World Trade Organization rules.
The order, issued in the form of a presidential memo, calls for the US trade representative to seek changes to WTO rules for 90 days and if there is no outcome by that time, it will take its own action to stop the relevant countries from enjoying benefits.
The memo, apparently partly aimed to put pressure on China, with which the US is waging a trade war, also mentioned South Korea, Mexico and Turkey -- all members of the G20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Specifically, what the presidential memo seeks is to prohibit countries with developing country status from having longer timeframes to impose safeguards, generous transition periods, softer tariff cuts, procedural advantages for WTO disputes, and the ability to gain certain export subsidies.
This could not come at a worse time for South Korea, since it is locked in an intense trade row with Japan. Tokyo, which has already imposed export curbs on Seoul on three key industrial materials for producing chips and displays, is set to apply wide-ranging export control measures on strategic goods.
The US move against WTO rules may damage South Korea’s farm sector, in which it enjoys privileges as a developing country. Under the status, the country is allowed to impose duties of up to 513 percent on imported rice and provide subsidies to local farmers.
South Korean government officials say that despite wide concerns about the potential negative impact on global trade due to Trump’s order, it would not pose an immediate threat to the Korean agricultural sector because the current tariffs on rice and subsidies will stay until there is a new round of negotiations.
The more immediate and urgent risk coming from the US president regards national security, vis-a-vis North Korea. The most worrisome aspect is that Trump makes light of the security threats from North Korea.
One good case in point is Trump’s reaction to the North’s test-firing last week of a new type of ballistic missiles, which its leader Kim Jong-un made clear was targeted at the “belligerent military in South Korea.” The North specifically is blasting the South for adding to its strategic assets, such as stealth fighter jets, and continuing joint drills with the US.
There is no doubt that the North Korean missiles pose a grave threat to the security of the South and other US allies like Japan, but Trump categorically downplayed it, saying that North Korea hadn’t tested missiles other than “smaller ones, which is something that lots test.” Emphasizing that they are short-range ones, he even called them “standard missiles.”
This posture, of course, is part of his efforts to exaggerate the outcome of his summit diplomacy with Kim and keep his deadlocked denuclearization talks afloat ahead of his reelection campaign. But what the North recently test-fired are believed to be ballistic missiles, which violates UN resolutions. The US president should not provide any exoneration for such a flagrant provocation.
What is further disconcerting is that Trump mentioned that Kim “didn’t say warning to the United States.” He added that the two Koreas have had “their disputes” for a long time but that Kim did not warn the US.
In other words, the leader of a country whose alliances with South Korea and Japan have been a lynchpin of security and order on the Korean Peninsula and the region is saying that it’s not a matter of concern if the US does not come under direct attack from the North.
It is sad that we have to warily watch out for the utterances and tweets of the leader of our long-cherished ally at a time when we brace for an unprecedented trade conflict with a neighboring country and continued security threats from the northern side of the peninsula.