Hochang Song is a former member of South Korea’s national assembly and is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping are expected to hold their first summit in early April. Among many other items, the international community will be watching to see if the summit might produce a solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. But the current political situation in the United States, China, and the Korean Peninsula dims such expectations. Northeast Asia is currently in unprecedented turmoil and transformation. Although Korea is the biggest issue on the agenda, it is not the right time for a U.S.-China summit.
First, there is a political vacuum in South Korea created by the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the ensuring presidential election campaign so South Korea cannot adopt any new foreign policy other than the one of maintaining the status quo. South Korean presidential contenders have shown their willingness to consult and work with the United States. However, if the United States reaches any agreement with China on issues related to North Korea without having had a chance to consult the next South Korean president, this will inherently alienate South Korea and damage the alliance. If the United States provides a new South Korean administration with an opportunity and time to consult and coordinate policies, it will further strengthen confidence between the two allies and will result in a better policy toward North Korea.
Second, it is likely that a progressive presidential candidate will win in South Korea’s upcoming election. Among many in Washington, there is a high level of distrust and misunderstanding toward a South Korean president from the opposition progressive Democratic (Minjoo) Party. This distrust could weaken bilateral cooperation and further lead to detrimental outcomes at the U.S.-China summit. However, based on my own past experience as a member of the South Korean national assembly and chairman of the strategic planning committee of the Democratic Party of Korea, I can confidently argue that most South Korean presidential contenders would like to strengthen the bilateral relationship in a far more constructive way compared to the way it developed under Park Geun-hye. If the United States gets to directly communicate with a newly elected president in South Korea, any mistrust will be eased immediately. The best and most sensible way to strengthen the alliance is to respect and trust a new president elected by the Korean people.
Third, the South Korean economy is facing many serious problems, which have been made worse due to economic retaliation by China as a result of Beijing’s opposition to the U.S.-South Korea alliance decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Chinese tourists who once filled airports in Korea are now rarely seen, and trade and financial transactions between South Korea and China have decreased significantly. This animosity has reached a point where Korean movies are barred from being featured at the Beijing International Film Festival. With a total level of economic dependence on trade reaching almost 80 percent of its economy and exports to China accounting to more than 25 percent of South Korean exports, the South Korean economy is suffering significant damage as a result of the Chinese measures.
There is increasing support within South Korea to reverse the decision to deploy THAAD and to restore its economic ties with China in an effort to alleviate economic suffering. As China increases the intensity of economic retaliation toward Korea, it is questionable whether South Korea can endure. As THAAD was introduced as a defensive measure to protect United States Forces Korea, which in turn helps to deter North Korea, the United States and South Korea should work together to resolve this issue. A true friend knows how to help a friend in hardship, and South Koreans believe that only cooperation with the United States can stop unjust economic retaliation by China. If the United States ends up prioritizing its relationship with China in a summit over that with South Korea, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will be damaged.
Fourth, trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is in serious peril. Many South Koreans are pushing back against the agreement on the comfort women issue signed between the South Korean government and the Japanese government, as the agreement was reached impetuously without any national consensus. South Korea and Japan have reached a historic low following the Korean War, and the two countries are lacking even basic bilateral contacts since the Japanese ambassador to Korea was recalled to Japan a few months ago. If President Trump makes a compromise related to the Korean Peninsula with President Xi without prior consultation with the next South Korean government, it will further jeopardize the already shaky trilateral cooperation between South Korea, United States, and Japan.
Lastly, the Trump administration itself is not ready for the summit. The Department of State lacks necessary personnel across the board, including a deputy secretary and assistant secretaries. Even though the administration is claiming that it is considering every measure on the table with regard to North Korean nuclear weapons, it lacks the capability to craft and implement policy. The Pentagon is in a similar situation, and one can only expect that the National Security Council is also overwhelmed with a myriad of fast-moving crises around the world. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Japan, Korea, and China has already proven that the upcoming presidential summit will not lead to any substantial accomplishment. In addition, messages from Trump and Tillerson conflict with one another.
The North Korean nuclear weapons program is like a runaway train with failed brakes rushing down a steep hill, headed toward a village. The world is looking to the United States and China for a solution. But the time is not ripe for a meaningful U.S.-China summit to successfully address the North Korea issue. For a successful U.S.-China summit, consultation with the next South Korean government is imperative. Peace in Northeast Asia can only be achieved by cooperation among allies and partners, and crises break out when alliances are weakened. The United States needs to strengthen its existing alliances and respect its allies before deciding to accord the same level of respect to China.