President Moon Jae-in arrives in Washington this Wednesday for two days of talks with US President Donald J. Trump. While political observers will be watching closely for any signs of disagreement over Moon’s desire to improve intra-Korean relations through dialogue and engagement, the most significant discussions are likely to take place out of the public eye.
One of those events will be on the Friday night after the summit, when President Moon delivers an important policy speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of Washington’s most powerful think tanks. Funded heavily by the US and Japanese governments as well as major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the THAAD system, the organization has played a key role in shaping US policy towards Korea for decades.
Last fall, John Hamre, the CEO of CSIS and a former deputy secretary of defense, made public comments expressing deep concern over the rising strength of South Korea’s left-leaning political parties. “We have to do something so we don’t become an issue in [Korea’s] next election,” he told a forum at the right-wing Heritage Foundation in October. “There’s a strong strain in the left parties that America is the problem.”
Eight months later, CSIS and the US foreign policy establishment have been forced to accept a new, independent South Korean leader with an agenda markedly different than his conservative predecessors. The new reality was clear on Monday, when Victor Cha, a CSIS senior adviser and the former director of Korean affairs for the George W. Bush administration, addressed a Seoul conference on the US-Korean alliance co-sponsored by CSIS and Joongang Ilbo (with Samsung, it is a major donor to the think tank).
Cha, who is about to be named the next US ambassador to South Korea, began his speech by praising the “extraordinary demonstration of democracy at work” during what he called the “crisis” over the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. But he quickly shifted into lecture mode, warning the Moon government not to take “unilateral action” on North Korea and to avoid “unconditional” economic assistance that could violate the current sanction regime endorsed by the UN.
In a subtle dig at Moon’s strong emphasis on North Korea, Cha insisted that the new government should prioritize the US-ROK alliance as “critical to dealing with the North Korean threat.” He argued that differences between Seoul and Washington could only be managed with “true, seamless, almost daily policy coordination” between the two sides. His speech sounded much like a practice run for his term as US ambassador, although some Koreans might wonder if “governor-general” might be a better term.
Cha’s comments underscored that Moon will likely face open criticism and skepticism in Washington, where the political establishment is united behind tough, militaristic policies towards North Korea. Over the last two years, discussions about regime change and pre-emptive strikes have become almost routine in both Democratic and Republican circles, and eagerly reported on by journalists of both liberal and conservative bent.
The latest trigger for US hostility is the strange case of Otto Warmbier, the Virginia college student who was arrested in 2015 by North Korean authorities and suddenly returned to the United States in June in a coma. His doctors quickly dismissed North Korean claims that his brain damage was induced when he contracted botulism and then took a sleeping pill. But according to the Washington Post, doctors did not find any evidence that he was beaten or tortured, as alleged by his family.
Warmbier’s death several days after his return triggered angry denunciations of Pyongyang from Trump, his cabinet and many lawmakers. “The young Ohioan's death may force President Donald Trump to take a tougher line with North Korea, a shift that could increase tensions with Beijing,” declared CNN, which typically views Korea only in terms of US relations with China. Several House and Senate lawmakers said they would push for a new law banning Americans from traveling to the North except in official capacities.
Meanwhile, US right-wingers disturbed by President Moon’s embrace of Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policies, have started a relentless campaign to paint the new president as a dangerous leftist. Their latest target was Moon Chung-In, the president’s special advisor on foreign policy. Earlier this month, he told a Washington forum that US-South Korean military exercises, including the use of “strategic assets” such as aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, could be scaled back if North Korea suspended its nuclear and missile tests.
This apparently irritated President Moon, whose office issued a terse statement asking the adviser to “exercise restraint.” In response, Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer who directs Korea policy at Heritage, tweeted that “Moon Jung-in's visit only exacerbated US concerns about Moon Jae-in's policies on North Korea, US alliance, and THAAD.” A few days later, Joshua Stanton, a fanatical champion of regime change in North Korea, wrote a blistering attack on the South Korean president.
“Moon has spent his entire political career in the brain trust of South Korea’s hard left, among those who’ve shown more solidarity with North Korea than with America,” he wrote in his notoriously slanted blog, FreeKorea. These attacks prompted several Korean media outlets, such as the Chosun Ilbo, to declare that Moon Chung-In’s “dovish” comments had “raised hackles” in Washington.
But that was an exaggeration. In fact, key players in the US national security state have decided that Moon’s election, and his positions on North Korea, pose no threat to the US-Korean military alliance.
In an unusual public speech on Monday, Scott Bray, the National Intelligence Manager for East Asia at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told a conference at Heritage that US spying agencies are spending enormous resources on North Korea. “There are few issues that garner the same level of attention at the highest levels of government” than North Korea, he said. But, asked if Moon’s election and anti-THAAD protests in Korea posed a problem for the United States as it confronts the North, he said no.
“I know that President Trump is looking forward to Moon’s visit, and know they will have a lot to talk about on North Korea and broader issues,” Bray replied. “I also know that, even with the changed domestic environment in South Korea, our alliance remains remarkably strong.”
He added: “Even if at times our approach is somewhat different – if we prefer stronger measures and South Korea prefers engagement – ultimately we’re both dedicated to the same outcome.”
That may or may not true, but should set the right-wingers straight. This week’s visit could prove to be very interesting indeed.