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[US elections and Korea] What would 2nd Trump term mean for Korea?

US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Tuesday in Omaha, Nebraska. With the presidential election one week away, candidates of both parties are attempting to secure their standings in important swing states. (AFP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on Tuesday in Omaha, Nebraska. With the presidential election one week away, candidates of both parties are attempting to secure their standings in important swing states. (AFP-Yonhap)

In September during the first televised presidential debate of the election season, US President Donald Trump said “elections have consequences.”

His remark holds true not only to Americans, but to countries around the world closely watching the US election and trying to determine what the outcome will mean for them.

South Korea is no exception. As a key Washington ally from security to trade and North Korea diplomacy, Seoul has a lot at stake depending on who controls the White House.

Polls have suggested Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in the national vote by 10 points, with a closer gap in the swing states that will likely determine the victor on Nov. 3. But considering the polls misjudged Trump’s conquest in the battleground states four years ago, Trump defying the odds this time cannot be completely ruled out.

Until the votes are counted, a second Trump administration still remains a real possibility. What would this mean for Seoul?

Experts say Trump will likely double down on his “America First” agenda in regards to foreign policy, keeping up pressure on allies to pay a “fair share” of defense costs.

“Just like his first term, Trump’s second administration will approach the South Korea-US alliance based on the ‘America First’ policy,” said Lee Soo-hoon, an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “Trump has accused rich allies of being free riders and brought about the idea that the US is shouldering excessive costs for their allies. He will mull ways to minimize the US’ security costs while maximizing allies’ share.”

He added that Trump would most likely maintain his initial offer or even raise the price Seoul should pay for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong US Forces in Korea. Washington is said to be demanding a 50 percent hike from the current 1.04 trillion won ($921 million), while Seoul hasn’t budged from what it calls the “best offer” of a 13 percent increase, putting the negotiation in a deadlock.

Citing Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw one-third of US troops from Germany, observers view it could do the same to Korea, using a troop pullout as leverage to get its demands met in the defense cost-sharing talks.

Earlier this month, the statement from the annual security talks between the defense chiefs of Washington and Seoul did not include the usual US commitment to “maintain the current level of the US military personnel” in South Korea, raising further speculation.

Evans Revere, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, raised concern on Trump’s lack of commitment to the South Korea-US alliance, citing Trump’s troubling remarks on the alliance, the demand for a massive increase in the cost-sharing and the occasional hints of a withdrawal of US troops.

“He made some strong and powerful suggestion that he does not have the same commitment to this alliance that every single one of his predecessors have,” he said in a webinar jointly hosted by the Washington-based think tank Heritage Foundation and Seoul’s Sejong Institute.

Revere added that next week’s election will be in part “a referendum on Washington’s approaches to its alliances.”

Another main concern for Seoul is the heating rivalry between US and China. No matter who becomes president, Washington will continue its hard-line stance to keep an increasingly assertive China in check. There will be mounting pressure for Seoul to pick a side between the US, Korea’s longtime security ally, and China, its top trading partner. 

“Trump had said it will counter China in all possible means, and this means it will put even more pressure on Korea to join its side if he were to be elected again,” said Shin Beom-chul, a director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

This could mean a formal invitation for Seoul to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic group of the US, Australia, India and Japan, in an apparent move to contain China in the region.

If Seoul remains reluctant on choosing sides, some raise concern that Washington could bypass Seoul and deal unilaterally on regional issues, including North Korea diplomacy.

“Trump’s policy on the Korean Peninsula will be carried out as a strategic move to contain China through strengthening network of its alliance with Seoul and Tokyo,” Chang Song-min, a former aide to the late President Kim Dae-jung, wrote via Facebook. “If Seoul doesn’t actively cooperate with Washington’s initiative, it could ignore Seoul and push ahead with North Korean policy unilaterally.”

As for dealing with North Korea, analysts say Seoul will have more room to work under the top-down approach of Trump, who met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un three times during his tenure.

“If President Trump is reelected, he will seek to jump-start negotiations using the approach we saw in 2018 and 2019: a top-down, summitry-led process of direct meetings between himself and North Korea’s Kim,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at the Wilson Center and a senior analyst at Sejong Institute.

This will be different from Biden, who will likely take a “bottom-up” “step-by-step” process in dealing with North Korea, of conducting reviews and making recommendations at the lower level before the president makes a decision. 

But there has been skepticism to Trump’s approach, because despite headline-grabbing Trump-Kim talks and exchanges of what the president called “love letters,” Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with the North made little progress toward the initial aim of denuclearizing Pyongyang. The talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been at a standstill since last year, and the North has been expanding its military arsenal.

“But from the South Korean government’s perspective, there is more room to work if Trump decides to meet Kim again as he said he would,” said Shin. “But if Biden becomes the president, there is less space for Seoul. President Moon Jae-in’s term could be over with conducting only a few working-level talks, making the North Korea situation harder to resolve.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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