South Korea’s Clever Diplomacy During Trump’s Visit to Asia

By: Soeun (Sarah) Lee

President Trump visited South Korea on November 7th as part of his recent Asia tour, which brought him to 5 countries in the Asia Pacific.  He mentioned several issues, including North Korea, China, Russia, trade, and an Indo-Pacific strategic arrangement that minimizes China’s role in Asia. While these are all important issues, what caught South Koreans’ attention was the clever diplomacy demonstrated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in addressing a potential trilateral military alliance between the United States, South Korea, and Japan and asserted Korea’s importance in Asia. By deploying delicate “dinner diplomacy” and scheduling for President Moon to visit Indonesia during President Trumps’ visit it China, the South Korean government demonstrated its resolve to remain an independent actor in the relationship between the United States and China.

While President Trump was in South Korea, Moon addressed the issue of a trilateral military alliance between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The US-Japan-Korea trilateral alliance was brought up during President Trump’s visit by inviting Lee Yong-soo, one of the “comfort women” to the state banquet and preparing ‘Dokdo’ shrimp, both politically contentious issues between South Korea and Japan. Dokdo is a disputed island in the East Sea (Sea of Japan), also called Takeshima by Japan. While the island is governed by South Korea, there has been a long territorial dispute with Japan over the island. The comfort women, females forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese army during the World War II, are a similarly contentious issue for two reasons. First, Japan has not admitted that the government organized it. Second, and relatedly, former president, Park Geun-hye, who was recently impeached as a result of a political scandal, agreed to resolve the issue, receiving 1 billion yen (about $8.3 million). Park’s administration has been deeply criticized for its decision to sign the agreement without the consensus of comfort women to end the debate over the issue.

These issues contribute to difficulties in making a military alliance between South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. Before Trump’s tour in Asia, President Moon said in an interview that South Korea will not join the trilateral military alliance with the U.S., and Japan. “Although it is important to continue cooperation between three countries, it is inappropriate to develop the military cooperation,” he said. By serving shrimp caught in Dokdo and inviting Lee Yong-soo, the South Korean government implicitly said that the history between South Korea and Japan hasn’t been resolved and that it is therefore Japan’s fault the three countries cannot make a military alliance. While the South Korean government, with these gestures, dismissed Japanese effort to increase military[1] cooperation, it also brought up politically and diplomatically sensitives issues. It was a chance for South Korea to impress on President Trump and the world that Dokdo is South Korea’s territory and that comfort woman are still an ongoing issue. Therefore, South Korea is not developing a closer military relationship between the three countries but will continue to balance between the U.S. and Japan, and China.

South Korea’s strategy seemed to be successful as Japan complained about the dinner menu and the invitation of the comfort woman. If Japan keeps complaining, South Korea’s finger-pointing is justified, as it will be clear that Japan is blocking the three countries’ relationship by not trying to resolve the territorial and historical disputes. On the other hand, if Japan stops expressing anger, it could be seen as Japan admitting that Dokdo is South Korea’s territory and that it had mobilized sex slaves during World War II.

These issues are all related to the growing strength of China. The South Korean government has always struggled with the U.S.-China relationship, trying to balance between the U.S. and China. With American THAAD missile defense deployment, South Korea was put in an uncomfortable situation where China unofficially sanctioned South Korean firms as the U.S. pushed for deployment of military assets in South Korea. In response to the situation, President Moon recently made an agreement with Xi Jinping on the deployment of THAAD, promising no further deployment and asking for understanding from all sides.

Additionally, in Indonesia on November 9, President Moon announced South Korea’s new focus on Southeast Asia, seeking increased ties with ASEAN countries. “Korean diplomacy in Asia has been more toward Japan, China, and Russia. But I see that it should expand to new horizons,” he said. His “New Southern Policy” will provide an opportunity for multilateral cooperation in Asia, limiting South Korea’s dependence on the U.S., Japan, China, and Russia to solve its problems. It will also allow South Korea to step away from a challenging position between the United States and China from which the South Korean government has always felt pressure. It is also notable that this was announced on November 9 when Trump met Xi Jinping in China. President Moon’s moves showed South Korea’s intention to be independent in dealing with the North Korean crisis, and economic and military cooperation.

President Moon has been always criticized for allowing “Korea Passing,” referring to the U.S. bypassing South Korea when dealing with North Korean issues, and escalating tensions by taking ambiguous positions on the trilateral military alliance as well as the Korea-U.S. military alliance since the presidential election in early 2017. However, Trump’s visit to South Korea was a great opportunity for Moon to prove his political and diplomatic ability. President Trump during the trip assured that there would be “no skipping” of South Korea during the joint news conference. Moreover, Moon’s clever choice on dinner menu and guest made it easy for Korea to put the onus for progress on Japan. Soothing tensions between South Korea and China before Trump’s visit and scheduling a trip to Indonesia, Moon has set the ground for rejecting the trilateral military alliance, deploying THAAD, and expanding his country’s diplomatic power in Asia. After all the tension and worry, South Korea seems to have found the way to break through this difficult situation.

[1] After World War II, Japan was constrained on military force issues, and allowed to have one only for defense purposes. Japan now has Self-Defense Force and a major U.S. military presence.

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