Editorials: Keeping South Korea on balance
President-elect Trump must discourage mischief from the north
Donald Trump won’t become president until Jan. 20, but the globe will demand his attention before the echo of his oath of office fades across the National Mall. Political turmoil in South Korea could well provoke mischief among U.S. adversaries in Asia during the intervening six weeks. President Obama will control the levers of American foreign policy until high noon that day, but Mr. Trump must be prepared to say firmly that anyone hoping to find daylight between the United States and its close ally in Asia will be disappointed.
“The land of the morning calm,” as South Koreans affectionately call their homeland, is anything but tranquil, morning or evening, during these closing days of 2016. The nation’s first female president, Park Geunhye, was implicated during the fall on charges that her personal aides extorted tens of millions of dollars from large Korean business conglomerates. Following large protests, Miss Park was impeached earlier this month by Parliament. Street clashes continue between demonstrators and the disgraced president’s supporters while she awaits a verdict on her permanent removal from the nation’s Constitutional Court.
Despite a succession of presidential meltdowns, South Korea has almost miraculously escaped economic catastrophe. Gross domestic product has averaged nearly 7 percent annually between 1971 and 2016, though it slipped to 2.6 percent in this year’s third quarter. Since suffering devastation during the Korean War, the nation has risen from the ashes to become the fourth-largest economy in Asia and the 11th-largest in the world.
All the while, South Korea’s evil twin to the north glares enviously at its neighbor’s prosperity. Now that Seoul has again been rocked by political uncertainty, North Korean President Kim Jong-un may be tempted to spook his estranged brothers and sisters at a vulnerable moment by testing one of his nuclear bombs or ballistic missiles, or both. The north is said to have acquired the capability to fire a missile carrying a miniature nuclear warhead, and the regime in the north is rarely up to anything good.
China’s seizure of a U.S. Navy underwater drone in the South China Sea may be payback for Mr. Trump’s campaign promises to hold Beijing’s feet to the fire for better trade deals, as well for daring to make nice with Taiwan. “We’re being hurt very badly by China with devaluation, with taxing us heavily at the borders when we don’t tax them, with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they shouldn’t be doing,” Mr. Trump told Fox News. “And frankly with not helping us at all with North Korea.”
The Chinese have agreed to tighten the screws on Pyongyang by signing U.N. Resolution 2321, which would penalize the north for its rogue nuclear program by cutting its coal exports by 60 percent. Ever the dealmaker, Mr. Trump as president might cobble together a trade — offering to show some accommodation to China on his hard-line trade stance in return for Beijing’s help in punishing North Korean provocations. The Trump commitment to equipping South Korea with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, capable of knocking down incoming nuclear missiles from the north, should be non-negotiable.
Restoring “morning calm” across the Korean Peninsula would serve the interests of the entire Asian continent. Making American great again doesn’t preclude Mr. Trump from reminding other nations that security is the key to stability, and stability leads to prosperity.