South Korea and the $5 billion mustache

South Korea and the $5 billion mustache
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Since the administration of President Moon Jae-in came into power in May 2017, South Korea’s relations with both Japan and the United States have deteriorated. Not all the fault for that potentially dangerous trend lies with the liberal Moon, an adherent of the failed “sunshine policy” with North Korea first advanced in the late 1990s by Kim Dae-jung.

Donald Trump had already started his presidency with a very jaundiced view of U.S.-Republic of Korea relations, accusing Seoul of not contributing its fair share of the joint security responsibilities and vowing to make drastic changes. In February of 2019, Moon reluctantly agreed to increase its financial contribution by more than 10 percent, from $830 million annually to $924 million.

But suddenly, in November, Trump demanded a 500 percent rise in South Korea’s contribution, to $5 billion, shocking not only the Moon administration but much of the South Korean population and many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

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Similarly, South Korea’s anti-Japanese feelings long preceded the Moon administration, dating back to more than a century of Japanese occupation, especially the World War II experience. While Tokyo has issued several apologies for its mistreatment of the Korean people, it also sometimes has shown insensitivity to Korean grievances on the comfort women issue.

Even given that past, it seems officials in the Moon administration sometimes have gone out of their way to make the worst of things, eager to criticize Japan over the smallest slights, real or imagined. It is not far-fetched to characterize Seoul’s attitude as being the equivalent of “the ally of my ally is my enemy.” Its reactions have ranged from the trivial to the deadly serious.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpChanges in policies, not personalities, will improve perception of corruption in the US Union leader: Bloomberg can go all the way Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE’s appointment of retired Adm. Harry Harris as U.S. ambassador to South Korea struck some raw nerves because he is a Japanese-American. Now things have gotten so bad that Harris’s newly-sprouted mustache has drawn the criticism that it was a deliberate slight, evoking memories of the mustache-wearing Japanese officers in WWII, most notably Hideki Tojo, the wartime Japanese dictator. 

When Harris suggested that it would be helpful if Moon officials coordinate their overtures to North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim Trump's 'two steps forward, one step backward' strategy with China Overnight Defense: Senate votes to acquit Trump | Highlights from State of the Union | Trump defends Soleimani strike | Service member surprises family at speech | Air Force tests ICBM MORE with the United States, critics accused him of acting more like an occupying colonial governor-general than the peacetime ambassador of a supportive democratic ally.

Historians will decide whether Moon’s unilateral, overly eager entreaties to Pyongyang have helped or impeded Trump’s own calibrated one-man good-cop/bad-cop approach with Kim. But the most substantive and ominous action Moon took in recent months was his precipitous decision to withdraw his country’s participation in the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. This is a crucial information-sharing security arrangement that helps facilitate America’s defense of both of its two key Asian allies.

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It took a months-long diplomatic effort by Harris and his Washington colleagues to get Moon to relent and keep GSOMIA functioning. It is not known whether there was an intervening telephone conversation between the American and South Korean presidents. But two other things affecting U.S.-ROK relations did change in that same period.

Returning to the mustache imbroglio, the U.S. ambassador noted that in that era, the style was also affected by military officers and government officials in various Asian and Western countries. More to the point, he has stressed that “I am not the Japanese-American ambassador to  South Korea; I am the American ambassador to South Korea.”

Still, after initially indicating that he would keep the mustache, Harris said if people felt it was inhibiting his ability to relate effectively with the South Korean people, and thus the government, he would respect those sensitivities and remove it. It does, and he should. After all, President Trump never liked former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonBarr back on the hot seat The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in John Bolton defends John Kelly after Trump criticism MORE’s mustache and though he managed to keep it, he did lose his job.

Meanwhile, the U.S. president has significantly moderated his $5 billion demand for South Korea’s share of the costs of U.S. troop deployments to an as-yet undisclosed amount under a new Special Measures Agreement that Seoul and Washington recently reached.

All three troublesome issues have been resolved or are nearing resolution, though others remain, such as on trade. But for now, the critical U.S.-ROK relationship — strongly supported by the peoples of the two countries and sealed with the blood of their fathers and grandfathers — has returned to an even keel. It can remain healthy if President Moon will take Ambassador Harris’s respectful suggestion and coordinate future peace initiatives toward North Korea with his U.S. security partners.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.