"...The robustness of the bilateral alliance and the resilience of shared democratic values will be underscored, not to mention their firm deterrence posture against North Korea's belligerence. That hides the underneath simmering debate and uneasiness about President Donald Trump and the way he handles the North Korean issue.
As elsewhere, Trump is seen here as a very unusual U.S. president, who has engaged in a verbal diatribe and a war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It even includes insinuations of war. At a recent U.N. meeting, Trump also spoke about "totally destroying" North Korea. That was quite an "anti-U.N." statement because the very founding spirit of the U.N. was to prevent the destruction of nations from wars.
Now, for the first time, we may have a U.S. president who is seen as a liability to world peace ― on par with North Korean leader Kim. There is an increasing fear that Trump might be a U.S. president who will start the Second Korean War. (There is even a view that it will likely lead to World War III.)
The U.S. under Trump's helm is increasingly seen not as a responsible adult superpower that assures the world of peace, but rather one that appears to be trying to find a "justifiable" way to start a war with North Korea. Make no mistake; we all know it's North Korea to blame for the root of the problem. But for a mature superpower such as the U.S., the international audience would also expect mature leadership in resolving the current tension.
America's regional allies, Seoul and Tokyo, are worried about the U.S. carrying out a preemptive strike without consulting them first. They are the ones that will face possible North Korean retaliation first if Washington bombs Pyongyang.
Against this backdrop, President Moon Jae-in has been under increasing pressure from his own supporters. They criticize Moon for following the lead of Trump's precarious muscular handling of the North Korea issue. There are also voices that call for Moon to "stand up" to Trump and say they are on the same page in terms of wanting to denuclearize North Korea but differ in their "methods" on how to do so.
The countervailing view is that it is still in South Korea's best interest to "appease" Trump (that includes accommodating his lack of public decorum) and make him feel good and pamper him with compliments. These individuals cite the cases of Japan's Shinzo Abe gratifying Trump with a golf outing or China's painstaking lobbying endeavor toward Trump's family members to contain his anti-China disposition. They claim that we live in "real politics," not in a vacuum.
During his visit to South Korea, Trump is scheduled to give a speech at the National Assembly. That will be his only major speech during his Asian tour that also includes Japan and China. What message he will deliver to the region will be keenly watched by both friends and foes. Some expect that Trump will use the occasion to "finally" announce his Asia policy. Many doubt, however, that he has one.
During his Seoul speech, Trump might feel unrestrained as he was during his horrendous U.N. speech and blurt out words such as "destroy" or "fire and fury" or insinuate some actions that "the world has never seen before." Whatever he says, his words, as representing the United States, will be closely watched and remembered.
There seems to be a lack of understanding in the American public sphere about how Trump's America is perceived in this part of the region. It's a lot grimmer, like the world has never seen before. The personality traits and behavioral characteristics Trump represents are significant. It touches upon the American image, American values and the American reputation in the region.
Meanwhile, China sees its own "opportunity" in Trump as he undermines the very nation he claims to make great again. Trump should use his Asian tour and his major speech in Seoul as an opportunity to assure America's allies and preserve America's reputation. Otherwise, the "New Era," as Xi Jinping proclaimed at the recent Chinese Communist Party congress, may arrive in an expeditious manner.
Francis Fukuyama once argued about "the end" of history, denoting the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, we may ask the same question. "Whose" history?
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at email@example.com
Trump and the decline of U.S. image