The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not just North Korea. Trump has a South Korea problem, too.

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The Trump administration has spent a lot of time fulminating over North Korea's nuclear threat, but its tough rhetoric hasn't furrowed brows only in Pyongyang. On the other side of the Demilitarized Zone, the last frozen border of the Cold War, South Koreans are getting more than a bit concerned, too.

Observers there can point to a range of confusing and worrying statements made by President Trump in just the past few days. In an interview Monday, Trump called North Korean despot Kim Jong Un a “smart cookie” and said he would be willing to meet Kim under the right circumstances. This came after Trump claimed he wants Seoul to foot the bill for an expensive new missile-defense system the United States has set up in South Korea known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.

Trump also called into question a George W. Bush-era trade deal with South Korea that was implemented in 2012. Put this all on top of comments Trump made last month suggesting that the Korean Peninsula was historically part of China and it's no surprise that many in South Korea are not so pleased. Some even told The Washington Post last month that they're worried Trump may be a bigger threat to their lives than Kim.

Trump's remarks come a week before South Korea's presidential election May 9. The front-runner, Moon Jae-in, is a liberal who is far less hawkish on North Korea than his recently impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye. He wants to pursue greater engagement with the North, not deepen its isolation. Moon has also pledged a review of the Park government's decision to approve THAAD, which has riled not only China but also South Korean doves who fear the system raises the stakes in a region bristling with missiles and historic enmities.

“It is designed to shoot down North Korean missiles, but many in South Korea fear it will make them more of a target,” wrote my colleague Anna Fifield.

In an interview with The Post, Moon expressed disappointment in the American decision to rush THAAD's installation ahead of the election, thereby limiting the scope of any future South Korean government's actions.

“I don’t believe the U.S. has the intention [to influence our election], but I do have some reservations,” he told Fifield. “It is not desirable for the South Korean government to deploy THAAD hastily at this politically sensitive time, with the presidential election approaching, and without going through the democratic process, an environmental assessment or a public hearing.

“If South Korea can have more time to process this matter democratically, the U.S. will gain a higher level of trust from South Koreans and therefore the alliance between the two nations will become even stronger,” Moon said.

The move, coupled with Trump's suggestion that South Korea pay $1 billion for the privilege of hosting THAAD (a suggestion that administration officials quickly played down), has stirred consternation across the political spectrum in South Korea.

“Trump’s mouth rattling Korea-U.S. alliance,” said a front-page headline in Chosun Ilbo, a leading right-wing newspaper. “There are issues that are far more important than just money,” its editorial said. “If either country keeps reducing the alliance to the matter of money or the economy, it is bound to undermine basic trust.”

The conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper accused Trump of deploying “a barrage of verbal bombs” ahead of the South Korean election. “We hope that Trump will be more careful with his words,” it said in an editorial. “Who’s going to smile if our alliance is shaken? It will be North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping.”

The Trump administration made a grand show of ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea. But although it declared the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang to be over, it is pursuing a policy of pressure and diplomacy that looks much the same as the one carried out by the previous administration.

The White House's clumsy messaging in the middle of South Korea's election campaign also exposes another tension in Trump's foreign policy. The president has spent his first few months mostly focused on building bridges with autocrats and strongmen. But Trump, who has championed an “America First” doctrine that is uninterested in multilateral diplomacy and skeptical of prolonged American commitments abroad, seems to be having a harder time reckoning with the democracies of staunch, long-standing American allies.

“The United States has a limited ability to direct things,” said Michael Anton, the National Security Council’s director of strategic communications, in an interview with The Post justifying Trump's authoritarian outreach. “We can’t force these countries to behave certain ways. We can apply pressure, but if the alternative is not talking, how effective would it be if we had no relationships? If you walk away from relationships, you can’t make any progress.”

Yet Trump often seems willing to do exactly that — only with countries such as Germany or South Korea, where solid, constructive relations are supposedly a given.

“So far the reaction in South Korea to all these things that Mr. Trump has said has been surprisingly restrained, but I think that’s because South Koreans are still trying to figure out what kind of character he is,” said David Straub, a former U.S. diplomat dealing with the Koreas, to Fifield. “They know he’s an unusual president and they’re discounting a lot of what he says, but eventually remarks like these will have a serious effect.”

In the meantime, Moon, who polls suggest will almost certainly be elected next week, is staying optimistic.

“I believe President Trump is more reasonable than he is generally perceived,” Moon said in his interview with The Post. “President Trump uses strong rhetoric toward North Korea but, during the election campaign, he also said he could talk over a burger with Kim Jong Un. I am for that kind of pragmatic approach to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.”

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