Donald Trump has done it again: insulted a major ally.
Not for the first time, South Korea took verbal fire from the mercurial American president, currently under unprecedented pressure as the Covid-19 pandemic rages across America in defiance of all efforts to slow or halt its rampage.
In a Tuesday interview with Axios, Trump was asked about South Korea’s response to the disease, which has won kudos globally. With an economical, accessible and extensive testing regimen and a high-tech, legally backed contact-tracing system enabling early detection and treatment, South Korea (population: 51 million) has, to date, suffered just 14, 456 infections and 302 deaths.
When the interviewer pressed Trump on Korea’s success, the latter twice cast doubt on the Korean data, saying “You don’t know that.”
Voicing suspicion, in a live interview, of figures produced by a friendly government would be a diplomatic no-no for virtually any democratic world leader. But the convention-smashing American president is cut from a different cloth.
Trump’s behavior toward his ally is unfolding at a time when Washington is engaged in a heated confrontation with China regionally and globally on multiple fronts – diplomatic, technological, economic and strategic. Moreover, broader chaos is shaking US polity, society and economy.
Yet, there is no indication that Beijing is leveraging this situation to pluck Seoul from Washington’s sphere of influence. In fact, Brand China is taking heavier hits in Korean eyes than Brand USA.
Trump being Trumpian
Trump’s aspersions on Korea’s Covid data are the latest in a long line of demands and insults. Rightist Trump has not been benevolent toward South Korea or its leftist president, Moon Jae-in.
One of Trump’s first policy acts was a demand for the renegotiation of a bilateral free-trade deal. Then last year, Trump demanded a whopping five-fold increase in South Korea’s share of costs to station US troops in the country. Negotiations, which should have wrapped last December, are still ongoing.
And last month, it emerged that, during a Republican fundraising dinner in February, Trump had called South Koreans “terrible people;” revealed he did not like dealing with Moon; and complained about the cost-sharing issue.
South Koreans, however, seem to have learned to live with Trump with little more than an eye roll.
“South Koreans recognize that Trump’s verbal slights and unexpected tweets are not particular to their country,” said Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international relations at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, and who notes that Seoul has responded with “restraint” to Trump’s provocations.
Indeed, there was no official response to Trump’s Tuesday comments; local news reports on it were bereft of official quotes.
“I am sure senior Americans are saying to South Koreans privately, ‘We have to sit this one out,’” said Mike Breen, author of The New Koreans.
US allies worldwide are being pressured by Washington to increase defense spending, cut trade surpluses with the US and drop Chinese tech leader Huawei as a supplier to their telecommunication networks. Leaders of US partner nations as far afield as Australia and Germany have felt the lash of Trump’s tongue; US troops are set to depart the latter.
No world leader has expended as much political capital engaging Trump as Japan’s Shinzo Abe, but even Abe’s results have been mixed.
In one of his first acts in office, Trump pulled the United States out of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership global trade alliance, leaving Abe to champion the rump agreement. And Abe, like Moon, is facing demands for a five-fold increase in payments for US troops in-country.
The Kim card
If South Korean citizens accept these broad realities, their government has even better reason to do so. While Moon’s leftist administration may stand ideologically miles apart from Republican Washington, on one core issue, it is tightly aligned.
“From the Moon administration’s point of view, the legacy issue is North Korea – that is all there is to it,” said James Kim, a senior fellow at think tank the Asan Institute. “Moon wants more engagement, and I think he thinks there is a possibility of a deal.”
Trump has been the only US president to directly engage a sitting North Korean leader. The approach looks unlikely to be followed by the Democratic Party’s Joe Biden, should the latter win the November presidential election.
“Biden would probably offer Moon better bilateral relations based on mutual respect and understanding,” Kim said. “But on issues related to North Korea, there is a lot to lose, as Biden will probably take the ‘strategic patience’ approach of the Obama administration.”
That policy of containment and non-engagement would sit poorly with Moon, who makes no secret of his impatience to kick-start cross-border economic and logistics projects that are currently impossible due to international sanctions.
Hence, Moon’s government “has actively encouraged Trump’s unconventional diplomacy to engage North Korea,” said Easley.
Trump needs a foreign policy win and repeatedly touts his friendship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. With hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton ejected from Trump’s administration, the chances of a breakthrough in Pyongyang-Washington relations, however incremental, may entice Moon.
Brand Beijing battered
South Korea walks a tightrope between China and the US. While Washington is South Korea’s only treaty ally, China is its top trade partner: In 2018, 25.9% of South Korean exports went to China, compared to 11.9% to the United States.
Meanwhile, the US star seems to be falling as China’s rises. As Covid-19 tears holes in US credibility and the US economy plunges through the floor, Trump’s arch foe, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has successfully tackled his country’s virus crisis and his economy is in recovery mode.
But despite Trump’s bullying and US failures, Brand China is losing its luster in Korean eyes far faster than is Brand America.
Since Covid-19 detonated in China before infecting the world, an assertive Beijing has been flexing muscles in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Chindia. Looking on, South Koreans – facing a new, rising superpower in their back yard rather than just the established superpower across the Pacific – are apparently more discomfited by Beijing than Washington.
When South Koreans were asked to rate their sentiment toward the US and China by the East Asia Institute, the results showed that favorable sentiment toward the US had fallen from 77.3% in 2015 to 63.7% in 2020.
But China’s numbers were worse: From 50% in 2015 to 20.4% in 2020, Kim Sea-young, a research associate at the EAI, told Asia Times.
Two separate polls by the Asan Institute this year found the same trend.
“After Covid, the president’s popularity rating has been decreasing, but people’s view toward Trump is not necessarily how they see the US,” said Asan’s Kim. “Overall, people’s views of Xi have also declined…just as bad if not worse than views of Donald Trump.”
It is not just China’s regional assertiveness that has alarmed Koreans: Korea itself has been buffeted.
The country was shocked when Beijing unleashed economic retaliation after US troops, with Seoul’s say so, established a THAAD missile defense system on South Korean soil in 2017. The allies saw the system as a defense against North Korean missiles. Beijing claimed THAAD’s radars could snoop over its own frontiers.
As a result, Chinese tourist flow to South Korea was reduced to a trickle, the retail operations of Lotte Group – which had donated the land upon which the THAAD battery was establish – were hammered in China, and imports of Korean pop music and drama were halted.
Moreover, Koreans, who had battled for democracy in the 1980s were discomfited to see Hong Kong’s riots, and Chinese students in Korea reportedly caused trouble on Korean campuses as the issue was debated.
“Disfavor toward China is probably at its highest since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992,” Lee Seong-hyon, a China expert at the Sejong Institute, said.
Indeed, Asia Times has learned that China postings are suffering record low applications in the Korean diplomatic service at present.
Lee cited Chinese issues that have played badly in South Korea. Some of his students had felt intimidated by Chinese students in the same classes this year, he said. And incidents in which boards were nailed across the doors of South Korean expatriates’ apartments in Beijing amid Covid fears had been widely reported in Korean media.
“South Korea saw the naked face of the Communist Party – the nature of the regime,” Lee said.
In the regional China-US battle for hegemony. Breen suggests America cannot be written off yet. “Things now look terrible, but the US is experiencing a chaotic situation on the basis of a very, very strong system that 95% Americans endorse – the free liberal system,” said author Breen.
And systems, values and aspirations may wield more power than economics.
“You’d think there would be a lot of common ground between Chinese and Koreans, but young Chinese are very nationalistic and their pride allows them to put concerns about democratic issues aside,” Breen continued. “In Korea, there has been a huge shift away from nationalism and traditional values toward freedoms and respect for individuals; this is not taught, it is imbibed. I don’t think the average Korean has much time for China.”
But America does not get its house in order and rejuvenate its alliances, China could still win the long-term competition in the region.
“If the US cannot display leadership then I think South Korea is likely to fall into the black hole of the China sphere of influence in coming decades,” Lee warned.