By clinching victory with 41.1 percent of the vote, South Korea’s new center-left president Moon Jae-in has upended political life in Seoul. Moon was voted into office on a platform that promised to weed out corruption, improve relations with South Korea’s belligerent Northern neighbor and took a stance critical of US involvement on the Peninsula. The South’s new leader is expected to alter the status quo of Korean politics and depart from his disgraced predecessor’s policies, even if he now faces an uphill battle and a highly fractured political landscape.
Moon has long been clear that his country needs to look to the East, not the West, in order to ensure security and prosperity. He previously stated that he would review the use of THAAD in order to foster warmer relations between his country and its most important trade partner, China. However, given that THAAD’s deployment was intentionally expedited in order to go live before the election, a review leading to withdrawal is highly unlikely. He has also indicated that he wants to thaw relations with North Korea by resurrecting the Sunshine Policy abandoned in 2008, which sought to deploy more of the carrot and less of the stick in South Korea’s relations with Pyongyang. Moon also supports re-opening the contentious joint SK-NK industrial zone of Kaesong for the same reason.
Moon’s friendly stance certainly marks a major shift in South Korea’s policies toward its neighbor, but it is unlikely to positively influence North Korea to halt its nuclear provocations or reduce tensions, especially with Donald Trump so gamely stoking the fires in the region. Trump’s contradictory remarks that he would be “honored” to meet Kim Jong-un while warning that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea is still a possibility did nothing to assure the South Korean populace. Indeed, with friends like Trump, countries could be forgiven for feeling that they don’t need enemies.
The stakes are just as high for American foreign policy. With China becoming an increasingly powerful contender for regional supremacy, Kim Jong-un is rattling sabers, and now Moon’s victory, Trump’s blunders could very well alienate South Korea and deal a fatal blow to the White House’s efforts to act tough towards Pyongyang. Washington needs Seoul’s support if it is to stand a chance of containing China. Stephen M. Walt put it bluntly: China is “the only possible long-term peer competitor for the United States and the only other potential ‘regional hegemon’ in the world.”
In fact, most of Trump’s attempts to shore up American influence in the region have had the opposite impact. In the span of not even four months in office, he has managed to nudge South Korea neatly into the arms of Beijing by promising to scrap what he wrote off as a “horrible” trade deal with South Korea and going so far as to push them to foot a $1 billion bill for THAAD. What Trump fails to realize is the fact that alliances are neither fixed, nor a given: America’s allies are at perfect liberty to strengthen other partnerships or build new ones, and there is no guarantee they will do so in a way that will necessarily benefit American interests. Donald Trump may have a claim to the moniker of leader of the free world, but his actions are actively putting the U.S. at risk of losing its predominance.
It may not come as a major consolation to those in Seoul who look to the U.S. for friendship and protection, but South Korea is not the only American ally to have been thrown for a loop because of Trump’s penchant for letting his Twitter feed write checks his foreign policy can’t cash. In the Middle East as well, Trump’s seemingly tireless belief that America is being shortchanged by all of its partners is throwing Washington’s alliances into question. In a now infamous interview with Reuters last month, for example, he revealed that he had a bone to pick with Saudi Arabia, criticizing the country for treating the U.S. unfairly regarding its defense commitments and lamenting how America is losing “tremendous” amounts of money in providing for Saudi Arabia’s defense.
Unsurprisingly, the Saudis are taking a page out of the South Korean playbook by seeking to strengthen bonds elsewhere. Two in particular stand out: China, which inked $65 billion in trade and investment agreements during a visit from King Salman in March, but also the UK, which has been especially keen to build on its existing relationships with Saudi Arabia under Prime Minister Theresa May. May recently paid a visit the country to push the idea of each country helping the other overcome pressing challenges: Brexit negotiations and a post-EU role in the global economy for Britain, diminishing oil reserves and overdue economic restructuring for the Saudis. As a matter of fact, Riyadh and the other Gulf states have been May’s most earnest outside supporters when it comes to Brexit, taking the initiative on a free trade deal between the Gulf Cooperation Council and London that would come into effect once Brexit is fully realized.
Assuming Trump’s pattern of belligerent diplomacy continues, Washington policymakers should expect to see more of these initiatives that circumvent the U.S. Of course, Trump didn’t decide the result of the South Korean election: the disastrous policies of the Park era and its unprecedented scale of corruption did that, making Moon’s victory a foregone conclusion. Even so, Trump’s bluster may just help him gather cross-party support for his vision of engaging North Korea and China, further eroding the US-ROK alliance at a critical time. Whether Seoul drifting towards Beijing or compromising with Pyongyang will lead to a more stable Asia, as Moon seems to think, is entirely unclear.