Moon’s biggest mission in New York
President Moon Jae-in will leave for New York City, Sunday, to attend the U.N. General Assembly and hold talks with his U.S. counterpart on the sidelines.
Most diplomatic watchers believe the main event of Moon’s five-day U.S. visit will be his meeting with President Donald Trump, rather than the mostly ceremonial get-together of global leaders held annually around this time of year.
Usually, they may be right to suppose so, but it has to be different this year.
Much seems to be at stake in the Moon-Trump summit, the ninth such meeting over the past 28 months or so — almost one every three months.
The South Korean leader will fly to America with three vital objectives. First of all, he needs to ensure that the U.S.-North Korea working-level denuclearization talks, which are likely to resume in a few weeks, will lead to the eventual nuclear disarmament of the reclusive country.
Second, Moon must fill the cracks in the formerly watertight alliance between South Korea and the United States, resulting, most recently, from his government’s refusal to renew a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
He may also have to stave off Trump’s demand to raise Seoul’s portion of the cost-sharing for stationing U.S. troops in South Korea to as high as $5 billion a year, five times the current amount.
Thirdly, Moon should persuade his U.S. counterpart to remain at least neutral in Seoul’s diplomatic dispute with Tokyo. It would be best if Moon can get Trump to tell Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to back down.
All these are far easier said than done. Especially so if the South Korean government and its leader keep a low profile and try to please all major partners as they have done so far.
Diplomacy often requires humility or even a self-deprecating manner to attain long-term benefits. This is truer for countries with relatively weaker national power such as South Korea in dealing with their much larger and stronger counterparts.
However, it is necessary sometimes to stand up to others, however close or powerful they may be, to demonstrate one’s presence, and now seems to be that moment for Seoul.
South Korea has become the punching bag of Northeast Asia even before it realizes it. Japan under Abe appears set to ignore Seoul completely, continuing to downgrade its strategic importance and imposing “retaliatory economic sanctions” apparently for political reasons.
China made similar moves years ago when South Korea allowed the U.S. to deploy a missile defense system here, by closing its doors to the latter’s commercial and cultural exports.
The U.S., a longtime blood ally of South Korea, is little better. President Trump is treating North Korea as a baby to soothe, and South Korea like an ATM of sorts.
He raised a stir here recently by ridiculing South Korea and its leader, saying, “It was easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get $114.13 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn …” Trump then mimicked Moon’s accent while describing how the latter caved in to his demands.
Even North Korea is resuming its tactics of communicating directly with the U.S. while hurling insults at the South and its President. It was only three months ago that the South Korean President arranged a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un at the truce village of Panmunjeom, reviving the dying flame of their bilateral contacts despite the jeers from Moon’s political opponents.
Pyongyang has since launched 10 short-range missiles, making it no secret that their potential targets include South Korea. President Trump all but encouraged Kim, saying he was not concerned about the missile tests and Pyongyang can conduct military drills as other countries do. With friends like that, one hardly needs enemies.
I can’t help but wonder what made South Korea, the world’s top10 economic and military power, the laughing stock in this part of the world. It may be that too much modesty to accomplish Seoul’s ultimate goal of reunifying this divided peninsula in peaceful ways, is being used no matter what.
If the surrounding powers and their leaders are set to exploit this country’s dire wishes, however, President Moon and his diplomats need to take the tactic of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
In their New York summit, Moon should tell Trump why South Korea cannot be an ally of Japan unless and until Tokyo acknowledges its historical wrongs and makes proper moves of self-reflection; this country cannot be a pillar of the alliance against a specific country, say China, in a renewed Cold War regime; and it cannot drastically raise its share of the cost for U.S. troops here because they are not just for possible military conflicts with the North, but part of the U.S. global strategy.
Most of all, Seoul should not restore the information-sharing treaty with Japan under the pretext of forming a joint front against the North Korean threat.
North Korea, even including its nuclear arsenal, was ranked 18th in worldwide military might in 2018, according to Global Firepower, a U.S. site specializing in the military power of countries. South Korea ranks seventh, one notch higher than even Japan.
Besides, the South’s economy is almost 50 times larger than the North’s. All this does not, of course, mean Seoul could stand alone, needing no allies. However, the nation sometimes needs to stand up to its larger partners, let alone its weaker and smaller neighbor in the north, making clear its likes and dislikes and readiness to quarrel till the end.
Seoul’s best weapon is its people who pursue peace, fairness and humanitarianism as well as a working democracy, however. China and Japan, not to speak of North Korea, have been under one-party rule or something similar over the past seven decades or so. International pundits place South Korea’s democracy even higher than that of the U.S. and many European countries.
So President Moon’s most important mission during his New York stay is to make such principles clear before the world rather than struggling with Trump, who has little else but money and his re-election in mind.