What to Expect from the First Moon-Trump Summit

June 26, 2017

In advance of the first summit between President Trump and South Korea’s newly elected progressive president Moon Jae-in, Scott Snyder (Council on Foreign Relations) discusses Moon’s most consequential foreign policy challenge: the management of the security alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

Scott Snyder

June 26, 2017

South Korea’s newly elected progressive president Moon Jae-in was swept into office six weeks ago on a domestic anticorruption agenda and pledges of dialogue with North Korea, following a bribery scandal that led to the impeachment of his predecessor. While piecing together a new cabinet, Moon has faced an unremittingly steep learning curve in foreign policy: North Korea has challenged his offers of dialogue by conducting a series of missile tests in the weeks following his election, and he faces conflicting pressures between Beijing and Washington over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system. Now Moon faces his most consequential foreign policy challenge: the task of working with the Trump administration to ensure the continued smooth management of the security alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

Moon’s Pragmatic Approach to Foreign Policy

Moon’s campaign platform affirms the centrality of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the objective of denuclearization of North Korea. But it also seeks dialogue with North Korea toward that end and asserts a greater role for South Korea in the management of peninsular and regional security issues, including a pledge to reassert wartime operational control over Korean forces currently exercised in wartime by a U.S. commander. Many analysts recall that a decade ago, when Moon served as chief of staff under the progressive administration of Roh Moo-hyun, the relationship between Seoul and Washington during the George W. Bush administration was fraught with tensions that were only contained by the Bush administration’s patience and prudent management. Moon takes power in South Korea against the backdrop of a host of domestic and international constraints that are much more severe than those that South Korea faced a decade ago under the Roh administration. Moon’s Democratic Party holds minority status in the National Assembly, necessitating cooperation with other parties to get things done. Public support in the United States and South Korea for the security alliance is at an all-time high. North Korea is more militant and less internationally minded under Kim Jong-un than under Kim Jong-il, who held two summits with his South Korean counterparts. Kim’s appeals to nationalism as the basis for cooperation ring hollow among South Koreans facing the risks of North Korean nuclear blackmail. Regional tensions between Washington and Beijing have been rising, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to secure China’s cooperation on North Korea.