South Korean President Moon Jae-in was well aware that the optics would be crucial during his visit to Washington to meet U.S. President Donald Trump, who values personal chemistry above all else in dealing with foreign leaders.
The June 30 meeting was seen as the first big test for Moon, who was elected only seven weeks ago after the impeachment of his predecessor. The stakes were high, amid broad expectations that the visit could determine the future of the U.S.-South Korean security alliance at a time when North Korea is accelerating its nuclear and missile programs.
The U.S. media had been predicting a clash between the two leaders. Moon favors a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea than the Trump administration, which prefers tougher sanctions. Much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment also distrusts Moon, as American attitudes toward North Korea have hardened. Moon once served as chief of staff to Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean president in the mid-2000s, who was seen in Washington as an advocate of appeasement policies toward North Korea.
Moon’s advisers planned the visit as a carefully choreographed public relations exercise to win the trust of the Trump administration and the American public.
Moon also sought to downplay differences with the Trump administration on security issues. The most controversial matter was the recent deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system, which Moon had opposed during his presidential campaign. Although THAAD is aimed at defending South Korea against a North Korean missile attack, China has seen it as a potential threat to its own strategic nuclear forces and has imposed restrictions on South Korean imports in retaliation.
Ahead of his visit, Moon said he would not block THAAD as he had earlier suggested, but would delay its full implementation until an environmental impact assessment could be completed. Moon hoped the delay would give him time to address concerns among South Koreans as well as the Chinese government.
But if Moon thought these actions would mollify Trump, he soon discovered otherwise after sitting down for talks with the U.S. president and his cabinet. The South Korean leader was first publicly lectured by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who had once received a decoration from the South Korean government for his investments to help rebuild the economy after the 1997 financial crisis.
Ross complained that Seoul was continuing to maintain import barriers on American products, such as cars, despite the implementation of a bilateral free trade agreement in 2011. The U.S. trade deficit with South Korea has more than doubled to $27 billion since then.
Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, accused South Korea of serving as a conduit for the export of cheap Chinese steel products to the U.S. South Korea is the second largest steel exporter to the U.S. and could face possible tariffs once an U.S. investigation of global steel dumping is completed.
In a joint media appearance with Moon, Trump said he would renegotiate the bilateral trade pact with Seoul, which he described as “not exactly a great deal” and “not fair to the American worker.” He also suggested that Seoul should pay more “to ensure fair burden sharing in support of the U.S. military presence in South Korea.”
South Korean officials admitted afterwards that they were blindsided by the Trump administration’s harsh critique on trade. “We thought the focus of the summit would be on security, but it was only in the last 48 hours that we understood that trade would be of equal importance,” said a South Korean trade official.
Trump’s chastisement of Moon represents a sudden pivot in his administration’s approach toward trade with China and South Korea and its position on the North Korean nuclear threat. It also marks a reversion to the protectionist rhetoric Trump employed during his presidential campaign, when he accused both Beijing and Seoul of being trade free riders.
Early in his administration, Trump surprised many observers by agreeing to play down his criticism of Chinese trade practices in return for Beijing’s willingness to impose increased economic sanctions against Pyongyang to help curb its nuclear and missile program.
But in recent days, Trump had indicated that he had lost patience with China in achieving results. On June 29, his administration imposed sanctions on several Chinese entities that do business with North Korea, while approving a $1.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan that drew a furious response from Beijing.
In criticizing South Korean trade policy, Trump also implied that Seoul should fall in line with a more aggressive U.S. stance on North Korea if it wants to avoid problems exporting products to the U.S.
Although the U.S. president reaffirmed support for the security alliance with South Korea, he appeared to give short shift to Moon’s pleas for engagement with Pyongyang to solve the nuclear crisis, saying the “era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed.”
Moon was left in the awkward position of trying to defend his policy of “both sanctions and dialogue,” even while giving lip service to Trump’s more hardline stance by declaring that “the threats and provocations by the North will be met with a stern response.”
The key question is whether Moon, who enjoys a popularity rating of more than 80%, will suffer political damage as he returns home from the U.S. with little to show in terms of results. South Koreans have recorded the lowest confidence rating in Trump among Asian countries at just 17%, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moon is already being criticized for promising that his country would invest heavily in the U.S. when more spending is needed at home to reduce record youth unemployment.