Donald Trump turns on the charm in South Korea and bolsters the alliance
John Power says that by flattering his hosts and offering a firm, but not fiery, warning to North Korea, the US president boosted a partnership that has been rocky under his leadership
When he’s not threatening war or griping about skewed trade relations, Donald Trump seems to appreciate the power of flattery. The US president certainly laid the compliments on thick for his South Korean hosts during the second leg of his five-nation tour of Asia on Wednesday. In a speech before South Korea’s legislature, the first by a US president in nearly a quarter-century, Trump could hardly contain his praise for the close US ally, which he gushingly referred to as “one of the great nations of the world”.
The president listed off the fruits of South Korea’s economic rise after the Korean war, commonly termed the “Miracle on the Han”, from huge strides in life expectancy to the massive expansion in gross domestic product. He noted the country’s largely peaceful transition to free elections in 1987, its hosting of the Olympic Games the following year, and its advances in technology and science. He pointed out that Korean authors have published about 40,000 books this year alone and Korean musicians regularly fill concert venues all around the globe. If all of that weren’t enough, Trump expressed his admiration for South Korea’s prowess in golf, with special mention, unsurprisingly, going to the performance of Korean golfers at this year’s US Women’s Open at Trump National Golf Club.
“I know that the Republic of Korea, which has become a tremendously successful nation, will be a faithful ally of the United States very long into the future,” Trump told the National Assembly, referring to their security alliance dating back to the war.
It was an effusive display many miles removed from the candidate whose “America First” rhetoric saw him repeatedly accuse South Korea of freeloading on the back of Washington’s commitment to its defence. That, of course, was before Trump was faced with the Gordian knot of disarming a North Korea with little incentive to relinquish its increasingly formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The US president’s task, if not quite impossible, is at least gargantuan – for Pyongyang, nuclear weapons and missiles are a matter of regime survival, bolstering its legitimacy among a population propagandised into a siege mentality and guarding against interference from the outside.
While the prospects of Trump getting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to change course may be slim, they’re slimmer still if Washington and Seoul can’t at least present a united front. The same goes for the Korean peninsula maintaining its fragile peace.
Trump’s tenure in the White House has coincided with some, albeit relatively minor, ructions in relations between Washington and Seoul. Not known for his measured words, Trump’s at times bellicose threats toward North Korean have alarmed some South Koreans, who have practised a level of restraint in the face of North Korean provocations that would stun most other threatened populations. More than anyone else, South Koreans are acutely aware that any war with the North, which lies just 50 kilometres from Seoul, would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. When Trump arrived for talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, hundreds of South Koreans were on hand at the presidential Blue House to protest against what they saw as the American leader’s warmongering.
Tensions have flowed the other way, too. Earlier this year, Trump was reportedly furious when Moon delayed the deployment on South Korean soil of THAAD, a US anti-missile battery, on environmental grounds. Before Moon even took office in May, there were questions about how he and Trump would work together at all, given the former’s vow to pursue greater cooperation and dialogue with North Korea and the latter’s firebrand reputation.
Against this backdrop, Trump’s visit was an important opportunity to reassure the South Koreans that they are on the same page after all. In spite of all the uncertainty generated since his ascension to the White House, Trump this time largely stuck to the script of previous American presidents. While castigating the North Korean regime, he emphasised his desire for “peace through strength”. While condemning Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses, he suggested a “better future” was possible. Although he raised the renegotiation of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, he lionised the security alliance between the nations. And he made sure to flatter his hosts at every opportunity. The challenge of North Korea remains as great as ever, but Trump can at least be confident that US-South Korea relations remain in good shape for now.
John Power is an Australia-based journalist who reported from South Korea between 2010 and 2016