Given the seriousness of the threat posed by North Korea, common sense suggests Donald Trump should be doing everything possible to strengthen the alliance between the United States and South Korea. And yet, the American president seems to be doing the exact opposite.
As regular readers know, this has been going on for a while. Just a few months into his presidency, Trump lied about dispatching an “armada,” led by an aircraft carrier, towards the peninsula, and South Koreans weren’t pleased. When Trump falsely said the Korean Peninsula “used to be a part of China,” that didn’t go over especially well, either.
Last May, Trump made matters vastly worse, condemning the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, and threatening to trash the deal. He then said he wants to deploy a missile-defense system – Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (Thaad) – in South Korea to help protect against a North Korean attack, but only if South Korea pays for the technology. (White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster quietly let officials in Seoul know they should ignore the American presidents’ bluster.)
When Trump started publicly praising North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, many in South Korea were left understandably “bewildered.”
And yet, nearly a year later, Trump is still at it. The Washington Post reported on comments he made at a fundraiser in Missouri last night.
He also seemed to threaten to pull U.S. troops stationed in South Korea if he didn’t get what he wanted on trade with Seoul, an ally. He said that the country had gotten rich but that U.S. politicians never negotiated better deals. “We have a very big trade deficit with them, and we protect them,” Trump said. “We lose money on trade, and we lose money on the military. We have right now 32,000 soldiers on the border between North and South Korea. Let’s see what happens.”
“Our allies care about themselves,” he said. “They don’t care about us.”
First, Trump is still convinced that a trade deficit with a country is proof of the United States “losing money.” That’s not what a trade deficit means, and it’s amazing the president, even now, hasn’t yet familiarized himself with the basics of his own agenda.
Second, threatening and antagonizing American allies – especially in Asia-Pacific, especially ahead of purported talks between Trump and North Korea’s dictator – does nothing to advance U.S. interests.
The Washington Post reported in the fall that South Koreans are still coming to terms with how “different” the current American president really is. David Straub, a former State Department official who dealt with both Koreas, said at the time, “Opinion polls show South Koreans have one of the lowest rates of regard for Trump in the world and they don’t consider him to be a reasonable person,” Straub said. “In fact, they worry he’s kind of nuts.”
I’m trying to think of a sensible reason why Trump would go to such lengths to antagonize a key U.S. ally. Nothing comes to mind.