The New South Korean President Is Going to Piss Off Trump

They don't see precisely eye to eye about North Korea, but there are other reasons why Trump and Korean liberals won't get along.
May 12, 2017, 4:00am
Creative Commons users Lifesavior and Gage Skidmore

On Wednesday, Moon Jae-In, a liberal politician from South Korea's Democratic Party, was sworn in as president of South Korea. His predecessor, the conservative Park Geun-Hye, is in jail after being impeached over a bizarre corruption scandal that led to widespread demonstrations demanding her removal. Long story short, the South Korean people wanted the opposite of what they had before, and they got him. And that's probably going to make life complicated for Donald Trump.


While South Korea was distracted all through 2017 by its presidential scandal, the US president was busy rattling all the sabers he could find at North Korea as the Hermit Kingdom attempts to develop its nuclear weapons. Trump has also been demanding that China pressure North Korea, since the two countries are allies, though increasingly distant allies.

For South Korean presidents, the usual line on North Korea is that negotiations are off the table unless the Hermit Kingdom gives up its nuclear program. Moon, the son of North Korean parents, sounds much more conciliatory. "If the conditions shape up, I will go to Pyongyang," Moon said in his inaugural address. Moon is no fan of the regime in charge of North Korea, but he thinks the South must "embrace the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day."

Does that link up with Trump's priorities? How are Moon and Trump going to get along? And what about Japan? To learn more about how the new president will affect geopolitics, I talked to Rodger Baker, who analyzes military strategy on the Korean Peninsula for the military intelligence firm Stratfor.

VICE: What did this election mean for South Korea?
Rodger Baker: This was really a rejection of the conservatives and of the old status quo government. Without a doubt. I don't know if you were in any of the street protests [over] Park Geun Hye, but it was exciting.

Will the liberals oppose war?
For the most part—even within the conservatives—there's an opposition to war on the peninsula. The conservatives may want less direct contact with North Korea and are more willing to have a little bit more sanctions and isolation, but I don't think they had any interest in seeing the United States carry out any military action against the North. And certainly the liberal forces don't support that at all.


How does China feel?
I think the Chinese are thrilled. China's going to say, Oh, look, we tried, but here's South Korea, and they're actually the neighbor. And they're the ones that are pushing this other policy. Maybe we need to work along those lines.

Bottom line: Will there be conflict between Trump and Moon?
I think there will be when it comes to North Korean policy. When you have South Korea saying: We're thinking about reopening Kaesong [a shared North and South Korean industrial complex], we want to start a dialogue with the North Koreans quickly, and we want to talk about economic integration.

Why do they care about "economic integration" with the North?
It's about easing their economic backwardness, so that when you do eventually have unification, it's not so costly and chaotic. Right now, we have the US saying, We need to triple down on sanctions with everybody. They're calling everyone in Asia saying, Isolate the North Koreans. Shut their embassies, and things like that. Then here come the South Koreans saying, Yeah, no, I think we need to chat with them, and maybe reopen economic ties across the border. I think in that sense, there's going to be some friction.

Watch: the South Korean Love Industry

Will Moon's government try and get the US out of Korea?
He's not opposed to the US. But that said, the liberals have been much more likely to push for greater indigenous defense capacity for South Korea. It was [former liberal president] Roh Moo-Hyun who started the expansion of naval ports, pushed for the expansion of the building of their ambitious assault ship, the Dokdo, which is effectively a mini aircraft carrier. So it's not quite what we think of in America, where conservatives like a big military and the liberals don't.

What might greater independence look like in the near future?
Look at OPCON [unified military command between the US and South Korea]. It was the liberals, Kim [Dae-Jung] and Roh, who were pushing for an accelerated return of return of OPCON to the South Koreans. Then when [conservative president] Lee [Myung-Bak] came in, he shifted and said, We can delay that. We don't need it as quickly. We'll probably see them accelerate moves that have been going on for a while in expanding indigenous missile defense. That's certainly one that they'll keep spending on. And that's working on their domestic systems and systems in parallel with Israel.


The US wants to install these huge THAAD missile defense systems in South Korea. Why did it have to turn around and work with Israel?
That's because South Korea's not worried about the long- or medium-range missiles. They're worried about katyusha-style rockets, which is why an Israeli-style missile defense shield is much better than a US-style defense shield.

You're talking about artillery-style missiles fired over the border?
Yeah, that's the bigger threat to South Korea when they look at the North, much more than these long-range rockets. Those are the ones that, quite frankly, North Korea is going to lob at Japan.

Setting aside North Korea, will Moon have any military priorities that contradict what the US wants?
I would expect to see—though not immediately—them looking to expand their naval forces again. [Japan] ends up driving this naval build-up. There's that navy base on Jeju that faces south, something they'd never really had [before it opened last year]. Building it was a long slog that was initiated by the liberals.

When South Korea develops its own capabilities, is that a problem for the US?
The US for the longest time tried to minimize the development of the South Korean military because they were afraid that the South Koreans would push north and into war. The natural reaction of the US when the South starts developing significant indigenous capacity—like when they were trying to get their own surface-to-surface missiles—is hmmm, we don't necessarily want you to have that, because we don't want you to trigger the war that draws us in.

Have Moon and his people stirred up anti-Japanese sentiment?
They haven't overtly, but just before the election, the Japanese threw out a claim that Dokdo [the Korean name for a small island between Korea and Japan] was theirs, and the Koreans tried to go to an international conference to remind everyone that it's the "East Sea," not the "Sea of Japan." But I think where you're going to see it first is there's a lot of pressure on Moon to roll back the comfort women agreement with Japan, and to at least stop any further expansion of intelligence sharing, and trilateral military cooperation that involves Japan.

To my American sensibilities, the liberals sound kind of like our Republicans when it comes to the military. What's their deal?
I see the liberals as actually more nationalistic than the conservatives are, and that plays into their defense policy. They're Korean nationalists, which I think is why they're a little softer on North Korea, because they see it as a single entity. How can nationalism be liberal?
Think of it in terms of finding a way to liberate themselves from their over dependence on the United States. How do you do that? You have to have your own strong national defense. And that national defense shouldn't just be an auxiliary to the US and shouldn't be geared only toward North Korea, if your ultimate intent is to have an easing of relations with the North. You have to think about your broader national security interest, which in this case means Japan.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.