Trump’s Strong Stance On North Korea May Come Back to Bite the South

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At the beginning of last month, President Donald Trump made his first visit to South Korea, spending three days in Seoul meeting with his counterpart, South Korean President Moon Jae-In, and laying out his vision both for US-Korean relations in future. While there, he gave a speech at the Korean National Assembly, giving a strong sense that there will be a new US perspective to the conflict with North Korea, which is promising, while also underscoring a problem that continues to exist in South Korean politics and the relationship between both countries.

During the speech, which was stronger and more eloquent than many the President has given, Trump addressed the ongoing conflict between the North and South, discussing both its historical context and its ongoing effects on both nations. His tone, in general, was complimentary toward South Korea’s success since the end of the Korean War in 1953, though showed at some points, as with other moments in Trump’s presidency so far, to differ greatly from those before him.

In particular, going along with Pres. Trump’s belief in a strong military, he discussed the ways in which America is ready to aid South Korea, saying, “Currently stationed in the vicinity of this peninsula are the three largest aircraft carriers in the world, loaded to the maximum with magnificent F-35 and F-18 fighter jets,” adding, “I want peace through strength.”

In a strong break with the last three US presidents, Trump’s language here is succinct and to the point: America is ready to contribute militarily to stopping North Korea, and doesn’t mind confronting North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s strong military rhetoric with hawkishness of its own. This is very different from what has existed thus far, as the last three decades have all been characterized by a more conciliatory approach to the North.

Before this, there was a movement toward making concessions and giving North Korea aid as a way of avoiding an escalation of conflict or the development of its nuclear program. This resulted in efforts like the “Sunshine Policy,” but also characterized the behavior of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama toward the North Korean question.

On the other hand, Trump’s speech, with its focus on military, seemed to suggest what most of us know: the Sunshine Policy, and the many concessions made to North Korea as a part of it, didn’t do anything to stop aggression or, as we have seen for the last few years, the active development of the country’s capabilities in the form of missile testing.  Pres. Trump, by noting that words of aggression must be met with shows of force, the line could not be more clearly drawn, both between himself and Kim Jong-Un, and with those who came before him.

This is good news, at least in part, as it indicates that some progress might be made in tackling the North Korean issue. Of course, an escalation in rhetoric has many people worried about a similar increase in acts of war, but the North Korean leadership has shown no signs of targeting actual places, and seems to think its military posturing will frighten us. At least Trump showed that, by portraying a strong united front, we can show that they do not.

However, on the other hand, Trump’s speech, and approach to the Korean peninsula, does underline one key problem, and one that is out of his power to address. In the speech, he repeatedly referred to the American soldiers who had died during the Korean War and those still stationed in South Korea, ready to help if trouble occurs. However, this underscores a major weakness in South Korean policy and thinking for the last 70 years, and must be addressed.

Specifically, while a strong US presence and support may be essential to fending off the aggressive intentions of the North, South Korea must stop viewing itself as entirely dependent on America for help in this crisis. For too long, people have grown complacent about America’s leadership in this area, and are content to sit in the backseat during much of the negotiation or decision-making required to solve the problems of today and avoid the wars of tomorrow.

If it wants peace, and it wants it through strength, as Pres. Trump said, Seoul will need Washington, of course. But Seoul might also need to learn to stand for itself.

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