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All the wrong priorities

Nov 01,2018
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South Korean President Moon Jae-in and French President Emmanuel Macron look at each other after wrapping up a joint press conference in the Élysée Palace on Oct. 15. In a state visit to France, Moon asked Macron to help ease international sanctions on North Korea, but his request was brushed off. [YONHAP]
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Kim Hyun-ki
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Born on May 27, 1923, Henry Kissinger, 95, is flying to Singapore this weekend. Considering his age, those close to him say it could be his last flight overseas. The purpose of the trip is to attend the first New Economy Forum, which concentrates on economic issues between the United States and China. The Chinese leadership is deeply involved. It was first set for Beijing, but moved to Singapore considering the sensitive nature of the issues to be discussed. Under the initiative of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pro-Chinese figures, including former Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson, will be attending the forum. Groups friendly to China are mobilized. Diplomats in Washington say that inviting Kissinger at his advanced age shows how desperate China is about the trade war with America.

At the U.S.-Japan summit on September 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted to confirm that the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement on Goods (TAG) would not involve Japanese automobiles, which had been agreed to in working-level discussion. Abe wanted to get an assurance from Trump. But Trump said “No!” with a stern face. The Japanese froze instantly. After a while, Trump said, “Okay” because Abe is his friend. The Japanese sighed in relief — but they were well aware, and this includes Abe, that Trump can always change his mind.

It was Trump who made the biggest contribution to the evolution of China and Japan’s relationship from animosity to a partnership. China and Japan found leverage as China wants to stand up against the unpredictable Trump and Japan needs insurance. The United States declared an all-out economic war on China earlier this month, full-scale warfare that will involve many sacrifices. While South Korea focuses on North Korean affairs, the dynamics in Northeast Asia are changing rapidly.

Let’s look at the subtle change of currents in the United States. Trump, who had seemed “all-in” on North Korea, changed his attitude. A source who visited the White House’s National Security Council said he was surprised that 80 percent of the remarks made by the NSC were about China. He was also surprised that NSC members showed more discontent with South Korea than on the North-U.S. negotiations to denuclearize. He claimed that he heard the NSC doubt whether South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the Blue House staff truly consider the United States an ally. This could be the background to U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun’s unprecedented request to meet with Moon’s Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok. This is not the time to worry about trust between Pyongyang and Washington. The real concern is the trust between Seoul and Washington.

With the Supreme Court’s ruling on wartime forced labor by Japan on October 30, South Korea’s relations with Japan have crossed a bridge of no return. Seoul’s relationships with Beijing and Moscow are still lukewarm. In Europe, South Korea has become a “strange country” by asking European countries to cooperate with South Korea in easing sanctions on North Korea. It seems that there is no clear ally other than North Korea. Instead of adding to the backbone of the Korea-U.S. alliance through skillful diplomacy with neighbors, flesh is being cut off and the bones are cracking.

It is not the time to look only at North Korea and its nuclear program. The ongoing trade war between the United States and China has a direct impact on our economy. The plunging Korean financial markets prove it. No one knows when the Trump administration will impose high tariffs on our automobiles. If the Korean economy falls, North Korean denuclearization and peace will be useless. Unfortunately, South Korea does not have the power to fly in Kissinger like China does. South Korea desperately needs hedging diplomacy to look at the realities and prepare for an extended U.S.-China contest.

In that sense, rather than going against the United States and prioritizing inter-Korean exchanges, it would be fair to urge an arrogant North Korea to denuclearize first. At a dinner with South Korean business leaders who accompanied President Moon Jae-in on his visit to Pyongyang last month, a high-ranking North Korean official shouted, “Can you swallow noodles under such circumstances?” He was referring to lukewarm cooperation from heads of the South Korean conglomerates in developing North Korea’s economy.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 31, Page 30