The Odd Relationship between the Moon Administration and the Trump Administration

Discussion between Kim Haesun, China economic expert and Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute

Kim Haesun
President Moon’s special envoy to the United States Hong Seok-hyun, Chairman of JoongAng Media and former Korean ambassador to Washington D.C. has just returned from a trip to Washington DC where he met with President Donald Trump and delivered a letter from President Moon Jae-in. Mr. Hong also met with the US Senator John McCain to discuss the THAAD issue, especially the cost of the installation of the system.
It was unusual for President Trump to meet with anyone at this rather sensitive moment.
How should we read the recent development of relations between the Moon and Trump administrations?
Emanuel Pastreich
The good relations between the two administrations so far is rather unexpected. We anticipated a major conflict between the Moon and Trump administrations because Moon has advocated for engagement with North Korea whereas the Trump administration has been threatening military action.
But the truth is that President Trump has a lot of domestic issues that he must contend with. Perhaps he is starting to think that a North Korea breakthrough might even help him politically. He is also plunging into the Middle East with a poorly formulated engagement with Saudi Arabia and Israel. That combined with a proposal for a “Middle East NATO,” not to mention new tensions with Germany, means that he may not be able to come up for air for a while.
Kim Haesun
After the summit meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping at Mar-A-Lago, President Trump requested that China play a role in resolving the nuclear crisis by pressuring North Korea and by taking economic measures that would add the pressure to resolve the issue.
President Xi asked that President Trump give him 100 days to come up with a solution. How do you think President Xi intends to proceed regarding North Korea, especially now that we have a new President in Seoul who is committed to engagement?
Emanuel Pastreich
There is no doubt that President Xi is relieved to have someone in Seoul he can work with. And he did not really believe that he could make North Korea bargain away its nuclear program through economic sanctions. Actually, no one believes that it is possible to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear program.
The question is whether Xi and Moon, who have a lot in common as personalities, will be able to put their heads together and come up with a new vision for the region. It is possible, but the bureaucracies that surround the two leaders make cooperation difficult.
I fear that Trump is going to be simply too busy with domestic issues. In addition, he has no Asia expertise around him. There is not even an ambassador from the United States in Seoul.
Kim Haesun
I understand that the Asia Institute recently hosted a well-known Korea watcher Mr. Stephen Costello. Mr. Costello delivered talks at the National Assembly and elsewhere in which he talked about Washington D.C. and the issues that Korea faces there. Costello served as an important advisor to President Kim Dae Jung and continues to play a vital role as one of the more progressive experts on Korea policy. What was the key message that he wished to deliver to Koreans?
Emanuel Pastreich
Stephen Costello suggested that the Moon administration should go forward with confidence in its engagement with the United States. However frightening some of the statements coming from Washington may be, the Trump Administration is in no position to make policy about Asia and implement it. So if President Moon can articulate a vision, and customize it to appeal to President Trump, this moment could be a chance for Korea to play a guiding role in the alliance, and to expand its influence globally. But such a breakthrough will require some very sophisticated diplomacy, according to Costello.
Kim Haesun
There is a massive political scandal brewing in the US since President Trump dismissed the director of the FBI James Comey who was investigating him. Many are drawing parallels to Nixon and his dismissal of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the “Watergate Scandal.” What is your opinion about this action, and what is the talk among the Washington Think Tank folks? Is impeachment a real possibility and if so, what impact will it have on Korea?
Emanuel Pastreich
We still do not know how far the investigation might go. But overall, I fear that the political crisis in Washington D.C. is far more serious than anything that can be solved by the impeachment of a single president. Korea has turned itself around recently and established new precedents for transparent governance. In Washington D.C., however, pay-to-play politics is getting worse and the fights are not going to be resolved anytime soon. Some tell me the odds of impeachment are high. I am not so sure.
In any case, we can imagine serious political fights in Washington over the next years that will bring government to a grinding halt and essentially end a US role in international politics. In fact, most experts in Washington D.C. are already outside of the decision-making process.
Kim Haesun
And what might we expect in terms of Trump’s interactions with North Korea? What does Moon want to ask of Trump if there is a summit meeting in June?
Emanuel Pastreich
One thing we can be sure about is that President Trump knows nothing about North Korea. But as we know from his turn around with Saudi Arabia, he can change his opinion quickly. During the presidential campaign Trump identified Saudi Arabia and a threat and criticized Hillary Clinton for being too close to Saudi Arabia. Now he is engaging Saudi Arabia without hesitation.
So if there is a chance for a breakthrough in that Trump is that unpredictable. If it gives him some good press, he might be willing to go along with engagement. He will need support from the military, of course.
As for the summit meeting, well, I think that Moon will have to play a very delicate game. He wants President Trump to let him do what he has been planning to do for the last ten years; engage North Korea. Moon had better prepare very, very carefully for that summit.
Kim Haesun
Overall President Moon is off to a great start. He enjoys a high approval rating and his “common man” touch clearly set him apart from the elitist former President Park Geun hye. President Park would almost no one. What should we make of Moon’s first two weeks in the office?
Emanuel Pastreich
It was not at all obvious that Moon would do so well in the first few weeks in terms of his nominations, his symbolic acts and his speeches. He has gone back and forth on many political issues in the past. He was criticized of being unavailable. But I think what we see is not just about President Moon. There is a large number of citizens and government officials who want real change, who are frustrated by the incompetence shown over the last nine years. They are coordinating together and I think that they are developing a real vision for Korea. Moon is the beneficiary of this effort, and he is doing the right thing, but the political shift is not about him.
Even more importantly, Korea now is addressing social issues, addressing environmental issues, addressing work issues. The rest of the world, France, Japan, the US, Turkey, are heading the opposite direction. This is very exciting for us in that Korea could be a leader globally in a substantial sense.

This discussion was originally broadcast by Aju Business Daily on May 25, 2017.

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