President Moon Jae-in’s hastily-arranged midnight emergency cabinet meeting Thursday said it all. Photos showed a glum Team Moon scrutinizing US President Donald Trump’s break-up letter to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Then to add insult to injury, Trump’s televised press briefing took place during the meeting. Team Kim were probably pretty irked, too. Pyongyang had spent the day blowing up nuclear tunnels for members of the foreign media, an apparent down payment on denuclearization.
Trump, in turn, pressed the detonator and blew up Moon’s first year in the Blue House.
Moon took office last May with a mandate to restructure Korea Inc. With family-run conglomerates running roughshod over Asia’s No. 4 economy, wages stagnant, youth unemployment near 10% and one predecessor in jail and the other in handcuffs, Moon was charged with raising Korea’s game.
Instead, he pivoted to Pyongyang. Moon gambled there was a greater political payoff in wooing Kim than economic retooling. He wagered, too, that for all his bluster and erratic behavior, Trump wanted a peace deal. Moon’s success in guiding Trump away from “fire and fury” threats to planning a Singapore summit pushed his domestic approval ratings well into the 80s. It raised Seoul’s global image as a rising diplomatic power, too.
That was until the entire enterprise got trumped – literally. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, the uber to end all uber hawks, rattled Kim with “Libyan model” talk. Muammar Gaddafi’s fate after he scrapped nuclear ambitions – ousted from power and killed – doesn’t appeal much to North Korea’s hereditary boss. But that didn’t stop Vice-President Mike Pence from running with the same talking point.
The question is, how much damage will Trump’s U-turn do to Moon’s domestic support? In terms of optics, North Korea could come out on top – looking conciliatory and measured in the face of Trump’s pullout and subsequent bluster.
Kim also may have just succeeded in driving the much discussed “wedge” between Seoul and Washington. But Moon may now pay a price with his people.
How high a price? Just ask Japan’s Shinzo Abe and France’s Emmanuel Macron, Trump’s two best chums among democratic leaders. Both share sliding poll numbers because of close connections with the “America First” populist.
Trump has cozied up to authoritarians from Vladimir Putin of Russia to Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to Xi Jinping of China. But Trump’s speed dial is conspicuously light on duly elected leaders – only really Abe, Macron and, most recently, Moon.
Prime Minister Abe’s Trump woes have been building for some time. Much of the explanation for Abe’s approval ratings being in the 30s – and, at times, the 20s – is cronyism scandals. But the costs of Abe’s no-questions-asked Trump bromance are high, and rising.
First, Trump reneged on a Trans-Pacific Partnership pivotal to Tokyo’s reflation program. Then Trump attacked what he viewed as a weak yen. He slammed Toyota, Japan Inc’s premier name, for building a new factory in Mexico, not Trump Nation. He announced trade tariffs, refusing to give pal Abe a waiver.
Macron’s buyer’s remorse is intensifying as his numbers drop. The president wagered he could perhaps even talk him out of violating the Iran nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway, making all the hugging, handholding and dandruff-dusting in Washington last month all the more embarrassing for Macron.
National Assembly member Daniel Fasquelle lamented that France has “prostituted” and “humiliated itself in its relations with the US.”
South Koreans could be just as unforgiving of Moon giving Trump the benefit of the doubt – even declaring “Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize.” The potential fallout with voters could be unrelenting, especially as tensions over trade could quickly return to the fore.
Trump, remember, forced Seoul to renegotiate a trade agreement in effect since 2012. Moon acquiesced – what choice did he have? – only to see Trump delay signing the renegotiated pact.
Now Moon’s signature endeavor is at risk. Realpolitik means you deal with the president you have, not the one you wish was occupying the White House. Officials in Tokyo, Paris and Seoul must be asking themselves how much their associations with Trump are going to cost.