Trump visit to South Korea could address issues beyond North Korea

By Elizabeth Shim  |  Oct. 31, 2017 at 8:34 PM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Concern is rising North Korea could engage in a fresh round of provocations during U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to Asia, but in South Korea, one of Trump's stopovers, there might be greater anxiety the United States could be overlooking a longtime ally.

Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society in New York, told UPI a South Korean fear of "Korea passing" -- the de-prioritization of bilateral ties with Seoul in Washington -- could be the driving force behind support for the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula.

Referring to a recent Gallup Korea poll that showed 60 percent of South Korean respondents were in favor of tactical nuclear weapons, Byrne said there might be "anxiety" over North Korea's provocations but also a growing belief "South Korea should nuclear arm itself, although that is not South Korea or U.S. government policy."

The underlying fear is the United States will not be responsible for South Korea's protection -- but Byrne said such concerns have been "way overblown" by Korea watchers who are not highlighting other key developments.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has "made two trips to South Korea," reaffirming the alliance following Trump's inauguration, and the U.S., South Korea militaries are in agreement regarding North Korea, according to the analyst.

"I don't think there is a gap in the stance against North Korea between the South Korea and U.S. militaries," Byrne said, adding the recent 49th Security Consultative Meeting between the two countries underscored a strong alliance.

But Byrne, a former analyst with Moody's Investor Services, said he, like others, is puzzled by the diplomatic vacancy at the U.S. embassy in South Korea.

"I'm perplexed by the Trump administration not moving forward on getting a U.S. ambassador in Seoul," Byrne said. "I don't know why this hasn't happened."

Recent press reports had mentioned former George W. Bush White House staffer Victor Cha may be tapped for the top U.S. diplomatic post in Seoul, but the Trump administration has yet to make an official announcement on the appointment.

Some of Trump's campaign rhetoric have also left South Koreans with the impression the president does not have a sufficient grasp of the cost-sharing Seoul has undertaken to keep U.S. troops on the peninsula.

Trump is expected to visit Camp Humphreys, a newly expanded U.S. military base. Byrne said South Korea paid more than 90 percent of the base's costs, estimated to be over $10 billion.

"I think Camp Humphreys is a very good demonstration that Korea is shouldering a lot of the burden," Byrne said.

Trump may also be aware of planned changes under South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has agreed to increase defense spending as a share of GDP while in office.

"Right now it's either 2.4, 2.5 percent," Byrne said, adding Moon may "bring it up to 3 percent."

That increase would bring South Korea's defense spending well above guidelines followed by other U.S. allies, including NATO member states who spend about 2 percent or less of GDP on the military.

Transfer of wartime operational control, or OPCON, to South Korea has also emerged as a major talking point in bilateral issues.

According to a recent South Korean press report, the two sides agreed following the security consultative meeting held last week to develop a plan by late 2018 to return OPCON to Seoul's military.

But the more important issue is whether the "two militaries are very well coordinated," Byrne said.

"If OPCON transfer leads to some distance or some gap in communication and coordination, then it would be a major issue," the analyst said.

Byrne also said a bilateral trade agreement, the KORUS FTA, has been "mutually beneficial," and more sound analysis is needed before the deal is renegotiated.

Trump had called the FTA a "job killer" and suggested it would be terminated unless the agreement is renegotiated.

Byrne said South Korean exports to the United States would have increased with or without the trade deal, and under the agreement South Korea imported more U.S. goods.

About two out of three South Koreans recently surveyed said they were against renegotiating the trade deal, according to the Korea Times on Tuesday.

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