When most around the world had battened down the hatches for a rough ride through the last days of the US Presidential election campaign, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has become seriously preoccupied again with the Trump administration.
In this otherwise pre-election limbo period, last week turned out to be an extremely active one for the ROK – which clearly exposed the malaise currently prevailing in the relationship between Seoul and Washington.
Not unexpectedly, in his election campaign, President Trump has been unable to boast success on the North Korea front – as so dramatically demonstrated by the claimed super ICBM in the spectacular celebrations in Pyongyang and by the DPRK refusing another round of senior officials’ talks. Seeking a win elsewhere, Trump has had Secretary of State Pompeo whipping up a media frenzy seeking to convert the Quad arrangement with Australia, Japan and India (reported in these columns by Hamish McDonald on 9 October) into a “true security network”. For Pompeo the policy of engagement with China was now over. But the other Quad members so far have been more cautious about joining in some form of a collective security arrangement against China. As have critics in the US, including the influential Rich Armitage who has said : ” I want a coalition for something..in the Asia Pacific and Indo Pacific, but I don’t want a coalition against something”
The US has also stepped up its pressure on the ROK to join the Quad to which , despite the vital US treaty relationship, there is significant South Korean reluctance to pursue. Not only is China far and away the ROK’s biggest trading partner, it is also widely recognised as being crucial to any eventual resolution of the fundamental national security for the ROK. Participation in any collective security containment of China would incur considerable risk on both scores – as China has been quick to label Pompeo’s aspirations being for a “mini- NATO”. Long running tetchiness in Seoul’s relations with Tokyo would also need management within the Quad. Pompeo has also stepped up the pressure on the ROK to join the Clean Network coalition the US is leading to counter “the long term threats to data privacy, security, human rights and trusted collaboration posed by the Chinese Communist Party”.
At the same time, Trump has continued to push for a massive increase in the ROK contribution to the cost of US forces stationed in South Korea ( despite arguments from his own military and officials as reported in Woodward’s book “Rage”) and the reduction and eventual withdrawal of those troops. And spoken publicly in pejorative terms about South Korea. None of which was helped by comments from the ROK Ambassador in Washington that “the idea of keeping an alliance with the US in the future just because we have had an alliance is an insult to the United States” – subsequently calmed down by the Foreign Ministry!
For his part, President Moon has interpreted some words in Kim Jong-un’s celebratory message as indicating a willingness to return to discussion of the finalisation of a peace treaty for the Korean War. Essentially Moon has been pushing for a peace treaty to be signed before denuclearisation of the DPRK. Moon considered it important to get support from Trump so that it could be explored with some priority as he would like to be able to achieve this goal before his own term ends in 2022.
Last week, Moon’s National Security Adviser ( Suh Hoon) paid an unannounced trip to Washington for talks with his US counterpart at the White House (O’Brien) and Pompeo. There was little detail about the reasons for this visit but it was rumoured that the peace treaty was the key issue. Suh claimed that this had not been the case though went on to say that this was not a new issue: “ what is important is whether the end of war declaration comes first or after denuclearisation” and then curiously added “ it is better not to speculate too much” ! Suh also commented that “Korea-US relations must continue, regardless of the election outcome” and “ I won’t say that this visit was specially arranged for the presidential election”. Though interestingly, a Korean media report claimed that Suh had also met someone from the Biden team while in Washington
Also last week, a regular meeting of the Security Consultative Meeting was also held in Washington attended by the ROK Defense Minister(Suh Wook) and the US Secretary of Defense (Esper). Given the continuing talk by Trump of reducing US forces in Korea, the ROK government decided to renew its efforts to resolve the very sensitive issue of the operational control in the event of conflict of the combined US:ROK forces in Korea – to now always held by a senior US General. Again Moon has been hoping to have this matter resolved before his own term ends. The ROK considers that the US has been dragging its feet on this issue. Esper argued that this matter would require much more time to consider while a US official was reported by Korean media to have said bluntly that a fixed time for the transfer of command would “endanger” US forces. Also on the agenda was the controversial Trump demand for a massive increase in the ROK contribution to the funding of US forces in Korea. Esper was also reported to have added to the pressure on the ROK to join the Quad by calling for the ROK “to contribute more to our collective security”. In the event, the friction which emerged at this meeting led to the cancellation of the normal joint media conference at its conclusion – an outcome attracting headlines in ROK media.
Later in the same week, the Fifth US:ROK Senior Economic Dialogue was also held in Washington. The agenda covered a wide range of issues among which the key was the continuing US pressure on the ROK to join the Clean Network on 5G against China – or more accurately spelled out by Pompeo as the Chinese Communist Party. As a world leader in 5G technology, this demand poses some extremely complex and difficult problems for the ROK – technical as well as political and economic. It was little surprise then that the joint communique from the meeting conspicuously avoided any reference to this issue which the State Department had set out at considerable length in the “fact sheet” which it had issued for the meeting!
The sheet referred to the initiative issued by Pompeo in April 2020 which asks “ all allies and partners – including the ROK – to join in using 5G Clean Path for their own diplomatic facilities, in addition to ensuring their domestic networks re secure”. And also urges the ROK to join the Energy Resource Governance Initiative which the US “intends to integrate into a similar initiative with the EU”. It notes that the “potential” exists to combine this with a similar initiative with the other Quad members to form a Clean Minerals Network.
All in all a very busy week for the ROK.