Donald Trump

South Korea irritated by Trump’s longer stay in Japan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 12:29pm

When he arrives in Tokyo on Sunday, US President Donald Trump will have lunch with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before the pair play nine holes at a fancy golf course that only recently allowed women to become full members. Then they will enjoy a private steak dinner – Trump’s favourite.

When the US president gets to Seoul on Tuesday, however, it is a different story. Although it is a state visit, he will only have time for a cup of tea with President Moon Jae-in in his office before their state dinner.

The varied itineraries reflect a broader discrepancy in his ties with the two leaders.

“He has his [best BFF here in Japan, but with South Korea ... he definitely has a more contentious relationship,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller of the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

Trump is expected to spend 48 hours in Japan and 24 in South Korea during his trip to Asia. That disparity, coupled with Trump’s punchier statements on the South, “does seem to kind of send a bit of a message”, Miller said.

Trump repeatedly criticised Japan and South Korea on the campaign trail, wondering why the United States was paying to defend two rich countries and throwing trade deals with both into doubt.

After the election, Abe wasted no time in trying to win over the incoming president, immediately heading to New York to meet Trump, with a US$3,755 golden golf club as a present.

“Abe assessed this alarming situation and took very deliberate steps to establish a relationship with Trump early on, making a clear case for the importance of Japan to US interests and appealing to Trump on a personal basis,” said Kristi Govella, a fellow in the programme on US-Japan relations at Harvard University.

Since that first encounter, the two have met in person seven more times and spoken on the phone at least 14 times.

At those meetings and after missile launches and September’s nuclear test, Abe has made a point of wholeheartedly agreeing with Trump on taking a hard line against North Korea. It is only on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Rim trade deal from which Trump withdrew, that they have publicly diverged.

At a meeting during the UN General Assembly in September, Trump praised Abe for “doing a wonderful job, doing a great job for the people of Japan.” Abe, in turn, called Trump “Donald” twice – a striking familiarity for etiquette-bound Japan.

Abe’s close relationship with Trump comes at a cost, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University’s campus in Japan.

“This bromance is based on total deference and subordination. Abe is trying to avoid saying anything uncomfortable,” Kingston said. “With Trump, you’re only one tweet away from being excommunicated.”

But during the first four months of the Trump administration, South Korea was in a state of political limbo while president at the time Park Geun-hye was being impeached. As a result, while North Korea fired off missiles and threats, Trump often overlooked South Korea and instead talked with Japan and China.

South Korea’s sensitivity to that tendency, widely labelled “Korea passing”, reflects its long-held fear of being seen as playing second fiddle to Japan, its former colonial master and continuing rival.

Since he was elected president in May, Moon has met Trump on several occasions and the White House has emphasised the importance of the security alliance with South Korea. But the two have not hit it off in the way Trump and Abe have.

That is only partly because of personal style. Abe and Trump are conservatives who have taken a hard line on North Korea, while Moon is a liberal who favours engagement with Pyongyang and opposed deployment of a US antimissile battery in the South. In September, Trump criticised the South Korean’s “talk of appeasement” in a tweet.

“Moon’s leadership style is quite different from Trump’s, and their connection has been more tentative,” Govella said. “This difference in personal relationships seems to correlate to a difference in diplomatic relationships. We see Trump following through on his campaign rhetoric much more with Korea than with Japan.”

Ahn Cheol-soo, who ran for president against Moon, has said that the difference means South Korea has “lost face” and that Trump’s short visit does not befit a “dignified country”.

“Many negative side effects are expected,” Ahn told his centrist party’s members, according to local reports.

Still, this will be the first state visit to South Korea by an American president in 25 years.

Trump will attend a state dinner – compared with a regular banquet in Japan – and visit Camp Humphreys, south of Seoul, the largest American military base outside the United States and one to which South Korea has contributed more than half the cost.

“This is a state visit, and the South Korean government will show that South Korea is a great partner in the alliance,” said Cho Byung-jae, a former adviser to Moon who now heads South Korea’s diplomatic academy.

Trump will also become the first US president in a quarter-century to deliver a speech in the National Assembly. But some South Korean officials are worried about what he might say.

“Normally, when a US president comes to give a speech, they compare notes with the South Korean government,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the left-leaning Sejong Institute. “Trump’s speech-writers may have given him advice, but it is still Trump. He could go off-script.”

Either way, protests are expected in Seoul, with a “No Trump, No War” rally held on Saturday, amid anger and confusion over Trump’s repeated threats to take military action against North Korea.

A recent Pew poll found that more than three-quarters of South Korean respondents consider Trump “dangerous”.

“Honestly, Trump is not very popular in South Korea,” said Han Jae-ho, a 20-year-old student.