On the TV series “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump presented himself as a master business professional. He may need to display that same salesmanship regarding this week’s White House meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
This event will be sold as a visit to reinforce the U.S. – South Korean alliance. What is important to note is that while the alliance remains, it has changed in its nature in various ways. Further, this week’s meeting comes on the heels of February’s non-result yielding summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. That event scored negatively for both the South Koreans and the Americans (at the time, there were many developments within American domestic politics that clearly detracted the situation). Trump could not boast about his success, and Moon, who was hoping to sell the positive results of the negotiations to his nation, was unable to score any domestic points.
With both sides having not really gained in the last summit meeting in Vietnam, this visit will serve at least for the press, as a good photo opportunity of the positive relationship between Moon and Trump. However, looks may be deceiving.
In reality, I find it difficult to draw that upbeat conclusion, especially from a South Korean perspective. The reason is because Trump will still push Moon to pay for the entire security being provided by the American forces stationed in South Korea. And, well, Moon will cave at the end, and the South Korean state will end up paying for the armed forces being stationed in the country. Although, it may seem like a good concession, in reality, this is a cost that will do more harm than good for South Korea in the long run. It will be a negative defense-related impact, as the nature of the U.S.-South Korean alliance would have changed, with South Korea fully bearing the cost. This will, in turn, be interpreted by South Koreans who are critical of America as the United States free-riding on the South Koreans and continuing its power-presence in East Asia.
As Moon shifts into his own sales schtick, I am not sure how this will be presented to the South Korean press, except more as a “This is what was asked of us from the United States and since they are our ally in protecting us/ and also working towards a good positive peaceful relationship with North Korea, this is a cost that South Korea will have to bear.”
And, since this result might be criticized by his political opposition, Moon’s government will try to make sure that the United States does not hamper any trade situation with them, for instance on steel.
As for North Korea, there may be a few possible scenarios of reaction, which are all going to be strictly for show. The first will be, reacting in a menacing or threatening way to the meeting of the heads of the United States and South Korea. Again, this is for ‘show.’ The United States and South Korea will both know that the menace is nothing more than another attempt to grab the headlines. In the end, any kind of threat by Kim Jong Un could play to the favor of Moon and Trump, as people tend to rely and trust the incumbent or the current government, when security is under threat.
Or, if South Korea were to get America to agree on a new set of talks, the North will likely release some news saying how “diplomacy” was their ultimate goal, and then prolong the process for a few months more to see where the next talks will happen.
This could then be used by the Trump administration as a stalling tactic to distract the public and keep everyone expecting what is next.
While this week’s White House meeting has the trappings of a substantial international engagement, it seems to often more resemble an international version of “The Apprentice.”
Nusta Carranza Ko is an an assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University. She grew up in South Korea and has continued to focus much of her research on East Asia, including South Korean politics and human rights violations.