The visit to Washington at the end of June of newly inaugurated South Korean President Moon Jae-in to meet with President Donald Trump is a welcome development. This is partly because of the disagreements between the two leaders regarding important policies.
A little more than a decade ago, North Korea conducted two rounds of missile tests on July 5, 2006. This was an early indication of the seriousness of Pyongyang’s military technology program, with the main target clearly American public and leadership opinion.
The missiles launched by North Korea were not exactly the sort of July 4 celebration welcomed by Americans or the world at large. The move by the bizarre totalitarian regime in Pyongyang also was no great departure, but rather the latest in a series of steps to create international tensions.
Trump used meeting with his South Korea counterpart to condemn not only North Korea, but also the bilateral trade agreement between our two nations. This is at least a declared reversal of Bush and Obama administration policies.
Moon was diplomatic, and both leaders emphasized alliance. Moon’s youth included human rights activism, reflecting harsh imprisonment during the dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee. In reaction, he became a human rights lawyer. He also served in the Republic of Korea army special forces and saw action in the DMZ along the 38th parallel.
He advocates engagement with the north, in clear contrast with the current U.S. leader. This South Korea attitude is worthwhile.
Commitment to South Korea is a durable, successful strategy of the United States, from early in the Cold War. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, U.S.-Soviet tensions were intense, reinforced by nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, President Harry Truman acted decisively under UN authorization to defend the south.
That war confirmed U.S. commitment to the containment policy and underscored diplomatic complexities. We did not liberate the north but did successfully defend the South. Continued determination has kept the peace for over half a century. Through these years, Washington has been consistent in encouraging South Korea development.
When the next major hot war of the Cold War period unfolded in Vietnam, South Korea repaid American support. Seoul maintained approximately 50,000 combat troops by the side of the Americans and South Vietnamese, motivated purely by loyalty to the United States.
South Korea represents a modernization miracle, moving in a relatively short period of time from autocracy to extraordinarily prosperous democracy.
Diplomatic distance between Seoul and Washington would strengthen China’s influence. South Korea and China have growing, complex trade and investment partnerships, and that trend will continue. U.S. concern about China’s expanding military strength was underscored last month by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ blunt public comments about Beijing’s aggressive territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
Washington should encourage Seoul to take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang.
President Moon’s unusual combination of military, law, human rights and political experience provides promising leadership credentials.