REUTERS / Charles Oki / U.S. Navy / Handout An American aircraft carrier in Busan, South Korea, July 2010.

How to Put the U.S.–South Korean Alliance Back on Track

And What to Expect from the Trump-Moon Summit

U.S. President Donald Trump took office determined to slow North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Since then, Pyongyang has accelerated the pace of its missile tests and has signaled its intention to flight-test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the continental United States. Meanwhile, Washington’s relationship with South Korea—a partnership that is essential to confronting the North’s advances—has been faltering since December, when South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye was impeached. Over the months that followed, Trump administration officials met with Japanese and Chinese leaders. Yet South Korea lacked a head of state who could forge the kind of personal connection that other governments had developed with the U.S. president.

Real fissures have opened in the U.S.–South Korean alliance. If they are not repaired, the partnership could falter just as North Korea nears an operational nuclear capability. The June 29–30 summit between Trump and Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s new president, will offer the chance to mend the two countries’ neglected ties and develop a more effective policy toward North Korea. The outcome will help determine whether a nuclear North Korea is contained, constrained, and deterred.

SEOUL SEARCHING

Even though the Trump administration has prioritized North Korea and dispatched senior officials to Seoul, over the last few months, problems have appeared in the U.S.–South Korean alliance. South Korean officials have been frustrated by the U.S. administration’s vacillations over North Korea policy and by its attempts to renegotiate bilateral economic and security agreements. Such frustrations help explain why, on June 1, Moon pledged that South Korea “will take the lead in dealing with Korean Peninsula issues without relying on the role of foreign countries.”

The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system has been a particularly sensitive issue. Shortly before Moon’s election, Park’s administration authorized the installation of the U.S. missile defense system. China condemned the move and showed its displeasure by sanctioning South Korean businesses that operate in China. Trump exacerbated the pressure on South Korea by appearing to renege on Washington’s commitment to funding THAAD in late April. Around six weeks later, lacking consistent support from the United States and facing opposition from China and his own political base, Moon suspended the deployment of the missile batteries. Officially, the original bargain is still on: the Moon government has allowed the parts of THAAD already in place to remain intact and says that it is still open to completing the deployment. In the United States, meanwhile, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster walked back Trump’s demand that Seoul pay for the system. Yet the drama surrounding the deployment has already turned THAAD from a source of strength into a political liability.

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