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The US needs to press the two Koreas and China

The US needs to press the two Koreas and China
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During their presidential transition, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden tries to erase Trump's 'America First' on world stage Queen Elizabeth will need to call upon her charm for Biden's visit Is Biden the new FDR or LBJ? History says no MORE told Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE that North Korea would be his biggest and most immediate challenge. The warning was accurate.

Now Trump can tell his successor, Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE, the same thing. The only question is whether Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing North Korea calls U.S.-South Korea missile development hostile policy Biden's invisible foreign policy success MORE will continue to refrain from firing missiles and testing nuclear weapons to see what free concessions the Biden administration may offer.

Trump should warn Biden that we have not just one Korea problem, but two. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s wayward policies complicate not only Washington’s relations with Seoul, but also with Pyongyang, Beijing and even Tokyo. The Moon approach can be summed up by two bizarre, but unfortunately apt, characterizations: 

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The ally (Japan) of my ally (the United States) is my enemy.

The ally (China) of my enemy (North Korea) is my friend.

The Republic of Korea under Moon needs a fresh look at its contradictory, self-defeating and inherently dangerous foreign policy. Past sins cannot blind us to present dangers.

Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, and the World War II period was the most brutal, including the sexual enslavement of Korean “comfort women” for the Imperial Japanese army.

After Japan’s defeat, U.S. occupation and generational changes, Japan was transformed into one of Asia’s vibrant democratic societies — mirroring South Korea’s own evolution from military dictatorship to democracy.

Even as post-war Japan was becoming a normal, civilized, even pacifist member of international society, two other Asian states — China and North Korea — were conquered by communist forces. In 1950, they joined in an invasion and attempted subjugation of the Republic of Korea.  The United States led a United Nations force, and after three years of the Korean War, halted the aggression where it started, at the 38th parallel

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The Korean Armistice continues to this day, but three generations of the Kim regime have never abandoned their intention to reunify the Korean Peninsula under harsh communist rule.

Meanwhile, in 2015, Tokyo and Seoul reached an agreement for the supposedly final settlement of the comfort women issue. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized again to the Korean people, though words can hardly heal the wounds inflicted on the women of that generation, many of whom are still living. The agreement also provided for Japan to establish a fund to be used to assist the Korean victims.

The agreement proved unpopular with some Koreans because Abe’s apology was personal, not an official acknowledgement of Imperial Japan’s culpability, though Japanese officials expressed regrets on several earlier occasions. Also, the funds were not explicitly designated as “compensation.” In 2017, the newly-elected Moon administration repudiated it, and Japan-Korea relations have worsened since.

Tensions ultimately expanded into the national security area. In August 2019, South Korea said it was withdrawing from an agreement to share military intelligence with Japan, an action that would seriously jeopardize not only Tokyo’s national security interests but Seoul’s and Washington’s as well. At the last minute, the U.S. prevailed upon South Korea to reverse its position, but the frosty relations between South Korea and Japan continue to endanger the security situation in Northeast Asia.

In 2020, Japan placed controls on semiconductor-related items and removed South Korea from its “white list” of trusted partners. South Korea responded by removing Japan from its own “white list.”

The Moon government seems unable to get past the wrongs committed by Imperial Japan in the 1930s and ’40s and deal cooperatively with modern Japan as a fellow democracy. Yet, it takes a diametrically opposite, even forgiving, approach toward the more recent aggression and contemporary threats from North Korea and China.

In 2017, Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy the THAAD system to defend against North Korean missiles. Despite evidence to the contrary, Beijing vehemently objected that it would directly endanger China’s own security, and imposed economic sanctions on South Korea. Seoul came close to canceling the deployment and did make commitments to Beijing not to expand the system.

Since then, both Moon and China’s Xi Jinping have made a concerted effort to establish friendly relations in ways that complicate both Japan-ROK relations and Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The Moon administration has made clear it is not enthusiastic about participating in any regional effort that Beijing could interpret as an anti-China strategy.

For that reason, it has refused so far to join Japan, Australia, India and the United States in quadrilateral regional security consultations (presently called The Quad). The aloofness to the U.S.-led collaboration is specific to the Moon administration itself, not to South Korea’s people or its military. Both cherish close relations with the United States based on shared democratic values and the bonds of sacrifice in the combat that secured the country’s freedom from communist conquest.

It is true that Trump’s occasional questioning of the alliance and his demand that Seoul quintuple its financial contribution to the stationing of U.S. forces in South Korea have exacerbated the tensions, though Seoul has agreed that some increase is warranted.

Some might argue that Trump has treated Pyongyang more gently than it has Seoul, almost vying with Moon for Kim’s favor. But that would ignore how Trump got to the “love letter” stage with Kim — after first applying a maximum-pressure campaign of punishing economic sanctions, the credible threat of force, and a delegitimizing series of attacks on Kim’s human rights atrocities and fitness to govern.

That is an important lesson for how North Korea should be treated going forward, if, as is likely, it attempts to intimidate the incoming Biden administration. But the other lesson learned from Trump’s creative approach is the role China continues to play in blocking progress on North Korea denuclearization.

Just before the first Trump-Kim summit, Xi summoned Kim to Beijing for marching orders: No compromise if you want China’s economic lifeline to continue. Although Trump said after the collapse of the second summit, in Hanoi, that it was “OK” that China has been undermining U.S. and international sanctions on North Korea, his administration has imposed some secondary sanctions on China itself.

As the Trump administration’s experience has shown, the Biden team will have effective tools available to address both the North Korea and China challenges. Less Draconian measures should suffice to align American and South Korean strategies.  

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 a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.