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Trump Sows Confusion in Seoul

Walter Russell Mead & Sean Keeley

President Trump unexpectedly turned up the heat on South Korea yesterday, suggesting that Seoul should pay up for missile defense while threatening to scrap a bilateral trade agreement. The New York Times:

President Trump’s comment that he wants South Korea to pay for a missile defense system being set up in the country jolted its presidential race on Friday and surprised the government, leaving it scrambling to figure out the intentions of a close ally.

In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Mr. Trump said that he wanted South Korea to pay for the system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, whose cost he estimated at $1 billion.

He also said that he wanted to renegotiate or terminate what he called a “horrible” trade agreement with South Korea because of a deep trade deficit. “Very soon,” he said when asked when he would announce his intention to renegotiate the pact. “I’m announcing it now.”

Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks have caught Seoul off guard, with both the trade and defense ministries claiming they received no prior warning about a change in policy. And the timing here is hardly ideal: South Koreans head to the polls on May 9, and frontrunner Moon Jae-in has been arguing all along that South Korea should learn to “say no to the Americans,” casting doubt on Washington’s reliability as an ally and the wisdom of its hawkish North Korea policy. Trump’s unprovoked criticism, coming amid protests over THAAD and rising concerns that Seoul is being sidelined by Trump, will only strengthen Moon’s case.

Electoral politics aside, the White House is sending very mixed messages to South Korea these days: strategic patience is over and we are ready for war, but on second thought let’s try more sanctions and bilateral talks. The THAAD system should be deployed as swiftly as possible, but Seoul should pay up for it. South Korea is a fundamental U.S. ally, but we hate our trade agreement and might pull out on short notice. And all this is coming in the middle of a contentious election campaign, on the heels of a dramatic impeachment that has left the country traumatized.

Trump’s conflicting signals are probably not the best way to shore up U.S.-South Korea relations. Any disarray or distance in that relationship will send the wrong signal to North Korea at a time when Trump is trying to confront the country with a united front of global opposition.

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