Analyst: Trust deficit, not trade deficit, hobbles U.S. influence over ally

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  Dec. 14, 2017 at 3:06 AM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- A trust deficit between the United States and South Korea is hampering the critical relationship between the two allies as North Korea is entering a new stage of nuclear development, a U.S. analyst said Wednesday.

Evan Medeiros, the managing director of Asia at the Eurasia Group, told UPI the lack of trust between the two administrations in Washington and Seoul is a problem that has emerged since U.S. President Donald Trump assumed office.

"Absolutely there's a trust deficit," Medeiros said, "And I think it's an American self-imposed one."

Medeiros, a former senior director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council, said relations frayed when the Trump administration "threatened" to withdraw from a bilateral free trade agreement with South Korea, known as the KORUS FTA, after telling allies and partners it was seeking to do bilateral free trade agreements.

Trump officials were threatening to withdraw from the FTA from a U.S. ally "in the middle of a security crisis," a risky move with no end game.

"Sort of unpack that for me, and explain what the strategy is for that particular decision," the analyst said, later adding Trump's speech in South Korean parliament helped to alleviate concerns.

Medeiros, who had correctly predicted in late 2016 the United States under Trump would withdraw from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and in response the rest of Asia would double down on globalization -- was speaking on a panel at the Asia Society, addressing the region with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and two other analysts.

Rudd, who had recently returned from a trip to South Korea and China, said there is concern among Seoul officials about "what the president of the United States may do," as well as a "great deal of concern in Seoul about the ability of any diplomacy, to work on the North Korea question."

The Trump administration has been sending mixed signals regarding negotiations this week.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said Tuesday he would consider talks without preconditions, a significant statement because he "did not say a recommitment to denuclearization" was part of the requirement, Medeiros said.

By Wednesday the White House pushed back on Tillerson's statement and the State Department endorsed the correction, saying dialogue is available only on the precondition of denuclearization.

Interagency disagreement is still worrisome and "problematic," particularly in North Korea policy, Medeiros said.

"So if you're a North Korean you're thinking, 'Okay, I can sit next to Tillerson and talk with him, but he may not have the backing of the White House'," the analyst said. "Or if the North Koreans are actually serious...they may think Tillerson does not speak with complete authority."

"It's a risky move on the administration's part."

The United States is also taking risks in China relations, promising a "very bumpy road in 2018," the analyst said.

"The Trump administration is about to engage in a very interesting and risky experiment [on China], by taking a series of very serious unilateral trade actions against the Chinese, and seeing how far they can push them, in order to bring about big changes in the way the Chinese government manages access to their market," Medeiros said.

"It's basically going be a game of chicken."

The United States recently boycotted China at the World Trade Organization.

The analyst also said anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States is "one of the most worrisome trends."

"People talk about insidious Chinese influence," he said.

But even as China is being pressed with charges of taking a domineering approach to international relations, the analyst said Xi is "putting forward the China alternative, that China offers something different, and countries should begin to look to China to lead in these particular areas."

"Xi Jinping clearly is using this opportunity of both Trump generating concerns and uncertainty, but also the Trump administration stepping back from the key tenets of globalization," Medeiros said.

The Chinese president is meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, to discuss trade and North Korea, both issues with significant Chinese influence.

Moon is seeking coordination with Beijing on North Korea's weapons threats, but his conciliatory approach to the North, ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, is of concern, the former Obama administration official said.

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