What Drove Trump and Moon's North Korea Flip-Flops? Probably Geopolitics

When South Korean President Moon Jae-in was sworn in on May 10th, all signs pointed to him taking a much softer stance on North Korea than the outgoing President Park. Moon wanted to re-ignite the "Sunshine Policy" of the 90's and early 2000's. He started looking for reasons (technically using environmental and accounting issues) to slow or halt the deployment of a missile defense system in South Korea. Moon also said that South Korea might not need US heavy military hardware--including missile defense--in the region. Moon had said that sanctions and pressure wouldn't solve the problem, and that engagement with North Korea was necessary. 

Trump called Moon's approach "appeasement." Trump's plan seemed to be all about military and economic pressure--and if China and South Korea weren't going to help, the US would go it alone. Showing commitment to that pressure strategy may have been the root of the US sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Korean peninsula. 

South Korea had been quite ticked off at Trump's hard talk on trade and earlier insistence that South Korea and Japan pay for US missile defense in the region--a position that Secretary of State Tillerson quickly dropped when he took office. 

All this came within the scope of accelerated nuclear and ICBM testing from North Korea, and growing threats to use nuclear weapons against the US and allies (in fact, North Korea is for the first time close to having the technology to make a credible threat of launching a nuclear-tipped ICBM at the US). It looked like a major row was forming between the two leaders as they geared up for a meeting in Washington, at the worst possible time. 

(Note on the missile defense system: these are meant to intercept both missiles heading to South Korea and those going farther away--such as toward the US. Intercepting ballistic missiles is much more reliable when you launch interceptors near the launch of the ballistic missile, before it's picked up speed, which is why you'd want them deployed close by. And many Koreans don't want them because they'd be top military targets in a war.)  

Quick About-Face

Just recently--less than 2 months after taking office--Moon's tone has changed dramatically. In the lead-up to talks with President Trump, he called Kim Jong Un "very dangerous" and "unreasonable." Interestingly, he used Trump's same words about setting up talks with North Korea's Kim:" Under the right conditions." (As opposed to his earlier insistence that meeting Kim be part of his diplomacy.)

Just before flying out for the meeting (starting June 29th), Moon said he and Trump had the same goals and strategy in dealing with North Korea. Multiple times. He said he would "stand firmly with" Trump against North Korea. 

He also said that South Korea must be able to militarily "dominate" North Korea in order to preserve peace and begin engagement. That is, he will not tolerate engaging North Korea as equals, but from a position of overwhelming power. 

All this is a far step from the Sunshine Policy. 

What's interesting is that the US's official strategy with North Korea is also different from what one might expect given Trump's rhetoric. It's called "maximum pressure and engagement." 

If you're thinking, "the US and South Korea just quietly merged their divergent North Korean strategies into a single unified approach," you seem to be right. 

This is Not Unfamiliar

How did Trump and Moon so quickly shift their North Korea strategies to be so mutually accommodating? The simple answer is "geopolitics." South Korean and US interests about North Korea are fully aligned. They include:

  1. Most importantly, prevent North Korea from being able to effectively deploy nuclear weapons on ICBMs
  2. Prevent North Korea from having the military strength to threaten South Korea and unite the peninsula under North Korean rule
  3. Prevent the sudden collapse of North Korea and a massive humanitarian crisis on the peninsula
  4. Someday-hopefully-gradually-kinda convert the North Korean regime into something that can reconcile with the South--on the South's terms

Achieving these requires one overarching factor first and foremost: alignment on strategy. Without alignment, US and South Korean strategy would likely mutually undermine each other. North Korea would be able to "play favorites" with each and play both countries off each other. In short, it would be pretty disastrous. 

It is so obviously important to have an aligned strategy on North Korea--and so obvious that US and Korean goals are the same--that geopolitical necessity will force them together.

It's also not unfamiliar to see new world leaders quietly alter their foreign policy once they take office. President Obama, for example, spoke of broad ambitions about quickly withdrawing US troops from the Middle East, but kept to Bush's plan. He promised to curtail the US security state and spy apparatus, but instead expanded it. He and Clinton had the famous "reset button" with Russia, but after that immediately returned to mutual antagonism.

Whether you agree or disagree with any of the changes, they were likely driven by a series of national security briefings that the president gets only after they are elected to office. Once they're in charge, presidents receive batteries of new data and intel, as well as the interpretations of experienced military, diplomatic, and intelligence personnel. They're now making decisions with information they lacked when campaigning. It's no surprise then that many presidents revert to the foreign policy status quo despite heaps of campaign promises to the contrary. 

Why This Matters

Seeing the bigger trends in policy shifts like this is important for a few reasons.

First, experience and theory suggest that given a certain set of conditions, countries will generally pursue a certain foreign policy--in broad strokes. Obama and Trump drifting from their campaign promises to embrace more of the status quo is evidence of this. 

What it means to you: Be skeptical when a presidential candidate promises a radical foreign policy departure. They may even be sincere at the time--it doesn't mean they'll stick to it.

Second, it means that reality probably matters more than rhetoric, when it comes to foreign policy. Leaders can gaffe, flub, make mistakes, or start spats. If two countries have deeply share interests, these will be resolved. If they are positioned to look for reasons to fight, they'll find ways to fight. US allies--South Korea included--are going to stick around through headaches, problems, and personality clashes, as long as their interests remain aligned. 

What it means to you: whether you criticized Obama's "apology tour" or Trump's "loose cannon" tough talk, don't get too excited or worried about the details of what they say (even though the news loves to latch on to it). Keep your eyes on the big picture.  



Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.