EXCLUSIVE ANALYSIS: Trump Is Extorting US Ally South Korea
Is Trump Wielding American Diplomacy In Bad Faith?
There’s a great deal of uncertainty on the Korean peninsula right now. As North Korea tests missiles and threatens new nuclear tests, Donald Trump is pursuing a confrontational approach to North Korea, a sharp departure from the policies of the last three American presidents. Tension is evidenced by the steady drumbeat of headlines sweating about the possibility of war between the US and North Korea. Lost in the ongoing commentary of Trump’s staring contest with Kim Jong-un is how South Korea figures into the situation. That is no small oversight. South Korea would bear the brunt of any war with the Hermit Kingdom, and Washington’s policy toward North Korea is usually conducted in close consultation with Seoul.
The South Korean government is currently treading water, though. President Park Geun-hye was impeached on December 9th, and her removal was ratified by the Constitutional Court of Korea on March 10th. Acting president and Prime Minister Hwang Kyoh-ahn is not seeking election to the office in the May 9th special election. It is highly likely that the liberal party will take power following the historic scandal that removed a conservative president. Hwang is merely a placeholder and has no mandate to implement policy as the country awaits a transition of power following an episode of upheaval. This leaves South Korea vulnerable to international maneuvering to weaken it. And the Trump administration is not just overreacting to North Korea. It is working furiously to create a new paradigm on the peninsula at the moment of maximum South Korean vulnerability.
I will detail a hypothesis that South Korea’s political limbo is not incidental to the unfolding situation in Northeast Asia, it is fundamental to it. Trump is not treating close US ally South Korea as a partner, but as a mark. Heis targeting South Korea at its moment of weakness for a con job. Trump is extorting South Korea.
The clearest indication of this came Tuesday when Vice President Mike Pence, who is visiting South Korea, told a gathering of Korean business leaders that the US needs to “reform” a five year old trade agreement with South Korea. Though it was subtler than the bombast of Trump’s campaign, it was the same kind of trade aggression toward an American ally he repeatedly displayed against Mexico.
While in Korea, Pence has also been saying that the “Era of strategic patience is over” and threatened that Trump could attack North Korea. A liberal South Korean government usually pursues a policy of delivering food aid to North Korea, and seeking symbolic cultural exchanges to reduce the tension on the peninsula. Pence seems to be trying to drive South Korea’s policy for it, again, while it is in transition.
These two things lead to a situation where, following South Korea’s election, the next president of South Korea will immediately be on the defensive with the US. Whoever it is will have to deal with a security crisis with the North that Trump is exacerbating, as well as belligerence from the US trying to preempt soft power diplomacy and force confrontation, and aggression from US trying to gain advantages in trade. Something will have to give. The path of least resistance for a Korean president may be to lift specific tariffs to mollify Trump, in order to bring him on board with South Korea’s view of its relationship with the North. I’ll let you take a wild guess what those tariffs might be, but I’ll give you a hint. There are already gaudy buildings in South Korea with the name “Trump” slapped on them, worth a quarter of a billion dollars, completed in 2001. Surely, South Korea’s notoriously protectionist market could accommodate a few more if Trump comes around to the South’s way of thinking on diplomacy with the North.
This is the fundamental problem with Trump. It would be nice to be able to believe that this devious maneuver is being done to benefit American interests. But given Trump’s business interests, and the already long list of questionable dealings of his family in foreign countries, it’s impossible to shake the suspicion that Trump is playing high stakes geopolitical poker against a key US ally–and risking the possibility of nuclear war!–in order to fatten his own pockets.
The even broader context for the situation is the recent collapse of the TPP. While there was a great deal to criticize about the massive trade deal, President Barack Obama had teed up a plan to lock in allies through a vast trade agreement that would check China’s rising influence in the Pacific. Its failure, celebrated by Trump, gives China an opening to pressure Asian democracies like South Korea, to diminish their influence. It also gives Chinese President Xi Jinping an opening to seek an understanding with Trump, who seems far less interested in bolstering allies and checking China’s rise.
Trump and family have extensive business ties in China. Trump received approval for 38 trademarks in China in March. Ivanka Trump received branding rights in China the same day she had dinner with Xi. Jared Kushner made a $400 million profit from a Manhattan real estate deal with a Chinese insurance company linked to Communist party leaders in March. Another Chinese insurance company with high level political ties is heavily invested in a health data company launched by Joshua Kushner, Jared’s brother. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort (who had to register as a foreign agent), recently met with a Chinese construction tycoon to discuss how a Chinese company could help to rebuild America’s infrastructure, Fortune reported Monday. Yes, Mr. America First wants to give shovel-ready American jobs to a Chinese construction company.
Trump recently decreed that he would no longer seek to label China a “currency manipulator.” In defending it, he readily admitted that he did so because China is “working with us” on North Korea. Given the extensive business ties between the Trump family and Chinese firms, and the apparently fast-moving and unprecedented political agreements, it stands to reason that if Trump is putting the screws on US ally South Korea, China might be in on it.
Enter THAAD. The US is selling a state of the art missile interceptor system to South Korea. China has had an unusually hostile reaction to this deal. Chinese state media has called for boycotts of South Korean goods, and whipped up popular nationalism against South Korea–because of a defensive missile system. If Trump were shepherding the US-South Korea relationship responsibly, one might think that, during these cozy business negotiations with Beijing, the president might think to ask Xi to cool it with the over the top hatred for South Korea’s hardware which is only meant to contain crazy Kim.
But apparently not. This is yet another lever of pressure against South Korea. Given the close bilateral relations between the Trump family and China, Trump may even have the ability to call off China, and have the ability to put the offer to do so on the table in Seoul. Again, as long as “Trump”-smeared buildings can go up in South Korea.
This hypothesis that Trump is extorting South Korea that I have laid out is testable. Over the coming months, several developments could provide evidence to support it. These include more deals between Trump family and China; South Korean leadership lobbying Congress to defend them from the White House; an open rift between the White House and South Korea; South Korea making major concessions from a position of artificial weakness–this could lead to new big protests in Seoul; and finally, the smoking gun: Trump brand products springing up in South Korea as the White House moves to back Seoul against North Korea. If events develop in this kind of direction, it will be powerful evidence that Trump is wielding American diplomacy in bad faith, and is using its immense power to line his own pockets, without concern for America’s national interests, shepherding key alliances or geopolitical prudence.
Photo by South Korean Acting President and Prime Minister Office- Pool/Getty Images