South Korea’s unfolding domestic political crisis has been all-consuming, with daily revelations by an unrestrained Korean media into multiple scandals that have created the likelihood of a prolonged political vacuum and implicated President Park Geun-hye. Despite the biggest Korean political scandal in decades, however, Koreans have been focused on seeking explanations and assurances from American visitors following the election of Donald J. Trump as the next president of the United States.
South Korean National Assemblymen who should have been preoccupied with domestic political affairs asked aloud about the “Trump risk;” Korea’s largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, featured bold headlines stating “Angry Whites Overturn America;” Sunday morning Korean television talk shows elevated speculation about Trump above their own scandal; and the Korean government launched waves of delegations to Washington in search of reassurance and connections with a new administration. The South Koreans also held an emergency national security meeting led by Park herself immediately after finding out that Trump won the November 8 presidential election.
Despite the emergence of three converging crises--North Korea’s nuclear sprint, Park’s political implosion, and reverberations from Trump’s victory--Koreans may take some hope from Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula in the 1970s. As a presidential candidate, Carter had pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula in protest over the human rights failings of Park Geun-hye’s authoritarian father, Park Chung-hee. As president, Carter was opposed by his own political appointees, the bureaucracy, and nearly everyone in the Washington policy establishment. In the end, he postponed the planned withdrawal until 1981, but was never able to implement it. Instead, Ronald Reagan became the next president and increased the number of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula during the 1980s.
In contrast to the Carter days and the period during which Koreans attempted to bribe members of Congress, an incident known as Koreagate (1976), Congressional support for a liberal democratic South Korea is high today, providing a basis for some confidence that the U.S.-ROK alliance can weather the storm. It is hard to find advocates for dismantling America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea. Park’s phone call with Trump too provided a measure of reassurance, but it was also a reminder of the costs of South Korea’s current political weakness since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secured a face-to-face meeting with Trump while Park remains grounded and seemingly paralyzed by her corruption scandal.
Despite hand-wringing in Seoul over the possibility of a recast burden-sharing bargain between Washington and Seoul, South Korea would pay far higher costs in the event of a trade war with China than in the event of a revised cost-sharing agreement. Similarly, a U.S. turn toward protectionism represents a significant threat to South Korea’s prosperity that would be more costly to Seoul than an increase in costs borne by Seoul to house U.S. forces in Korea.
Regarding the future of the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement (FTA), some South Korean economic officials have begun to emphasize the job-creating effects of increased South Korean investment in the United States from Samsung Electronics, Hyundai, and KIA, as well as the sustained U.S. surplus in export of legal and other services to South Korea that more than offsets the bilateral merchandise trade deficit between Washington and Seoul. Aspects of KORUS could be fixed, but it remains the case that, unlike the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or other FTAs, no U.S. companies have moved jobs to Korea, where labor rules and costs are stricter and higher than in the United States.
Regarding North Korea, speculation abounds over whether Trump will dine with Kim Jong Un, whether Trump will convince China to put the screws to North Korea, and all possibilities in between. Regardless of what course the new administration decides to take, a smart play would be to deputize a high-level special envoy with direct access to the president and empowered with significant authority, dedicated to management of the Korea issue, given the time and attention that managing the issue will inevitably require. Such an appointment will be necessary to provide assurances to South Korea and Japan, signal to China that effective management of the North Korea issue must be delinked from the broader issues in the U.S.-China relationship, communicate with the North Korean leadership as needed, and expand the foundation of coordination necessary to formulate, prioritize, and manage an effective policy toward North Korea.
The costs and effects of the triple crisis posed by North Korea, South Korea’s extended political vacuum and likely transition to progressive leadership, and Trump administration uncertainties pose a serious new set of challenges to the U.S.-ROK alliance following an extended quiescent period of growing institutionalization and heightened coordination, during which South Korean officials often argued that they were not only on the same page with the United States, but even on the same paragraph and the same sentence. Now those efforts could face unprecedented challenges; we shall see whether the institutional structures on which the alliance is built will be sufficient to weather the storm.