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Trump's approach to South Korea hurt alliance, analysts say

Former U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) appeared to agree publicly but the two sides struggled to reconcile differences amid Trump’s defense-cost demands. File Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/UPI
Former U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) appeared to agree publicly but the two sides struggled to reconcile differences amid Trump’s defense-cost demands. File Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The Trump administration's policies toward the two Koreas damaged the alliance with Seoul, according to U.S. and South Korean analysts.

The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in also falls short on North Korea human rights, and Seoul remains a passive observer amid new U.S. efforts, the South's lawmakers and analysts said during the International Forum on One Korea's Congressional Roundtable and Forum on Wednesday.

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Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former candidate for U.S. ambassador to Seoul, said former President Donald Trump's approach to alliances created unprecedented problems in the relationship with Seoul.

"We saw a [U.S.-South Korea] alliance that was not functioning normally," Cha said. "We had a [U.S.] administration that saw the alliance in transactional terms, evaluating alliances as power liabilities, and not power assets."

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Outward appearances told a different story. Trump first visited the South in 2017, delivering a speech at Seoul's National Assembly that local officials said improved relations. In 2018, Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after visits from Moon's aides to the White House. After a historic first summit in Singapore, Trump said Kim was a "great leader" and "friend," while Moon praised the former U.S. president for his "huge contribution" to inter-Korean relations.

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According to Cha, the United States and South Korea "looked unified on the surface," but the two sides disagreed for four years on defense burden sharing. The two leaders also had different priorities. South Korea's policy is "largely designed to avoid a war," while Trump was trying to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Cha said.

Cancellation of key meetings

Kim Hong-kyun, a former South Korean special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security, said the Biden administration offers a new opportunity to revitalize a shaken alliance. During the Trump years, not once did the former U.S. administration convene a "2+2" meeting of the U.S. secretary of state, secretary of defense and their South Korean counterparts, Kim said. The high-level meetings did take place during the terms of former President Barack Obama and South Korea's Park Geun-hye.

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Kim, a veteran South Korean diplomat, also described Moon's approach to U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific as deficient. Seoul "faced no consequences" for its "lukewarm" response to the Trump administration's coordination with Japan, Australia and India in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. Under Biden, an experienced policymaker, South Korea "will not have the luxury of sitting on the fence."

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"Strategic clarity is needed, not strategic ambiguity," Kim said, referring to Seoul. The United States should invite South Korea to the partnership and make it a "quint," he added.

Moon's policies have been defined by a friendlier approach to North Korea than some of his predecessors, but lawmakers in Seoul are wary of the tactic, which has yielded zero dialogue after 2019.

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Cho Tae-yong, a South Korean lawmaker with the main opposition People Power Party, said at the forum on Wednesday it would be "unacceptable" to "only listen to the Kim family," or the North Korean leadership. Earlier in the week in Seoul, Cho had held a discussion on the South's anti-leafleting law that bans activists from launching balloons at the border. The ban was enforced after Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader's sister, complained about defectors and their activism.

Biden has yet to publicly address North Korea. A key question between Washington and Seoul is North Korea sanctions. Last week, U.S. federal prosecutors indicted three North Koreans for cybercrimes. Other sanctions against Pyongyang's elite remain in place. Influential voices in Seoul, including Moon's special adviser for foreign affairs Moon Chung-in, are calling for sanctions relief, however.

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Kim Hong-kyun said lifting sanctions would not support negotiations with North Korea. Sanctions provide the "only leverage" in talks with Pyongyang, Kim said.

"Sanctions are not for the purpose of pressuring North Korea for no reason," Cha said. "Lifting sanctions is always a possibility once those [violations] causing sanctions are rectified. "

International Forum on One Korea and the Global Peace Foundation are affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International.

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