There was a moment on the opening day of President Moon Jae-in’s summit meeting at the White House last week that crystallized the differences between South Korea and the United States in the era of Donald Trump. It came on Friday, after Trump and Moon had made their formal remarks about North Korea and the importance of the US-South Korean military alliance.

Suddenly, Trump cut loose with a critique of South Korea’s economic ties with the United States. “We are renegotiating a trade deal right now as we speak,” he declared to the surprise of many onlookers. He described the Korea-US Trade Agreement (KORUS), signed by the Obama administration and a favorite target of his during his campaign, as a “rough deal for the United States.” “We want something that’s going to be good for the American worker,” he informed Moon.

But the real shocker came inside the White House cabinet room, where Moon and his foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, had been invited to meet the rest of Trump’s team. After making a few welcoming comments, Trump asked Wilbur Ross, his Secretary of Commerce, to speak about trade. With cameras rolling (at Trump’s insistence), Ross lit into Moon and Kang about South Korea’s restrictions on US auto and steel exports.

Ross, who had alienated the German government with a similar lecture a few days before, insisted that Seoul’s administrative “rulemaking” on foreign products affects the “access US companies have to the Korean market,” particularly in manufacturing. There was no mention whatsoever of North Korea or Moon’s desire to resolve the tense situation with his neighbor. But as Moon began to offer his response, CNN quickly cut away, leaving the last word to Trump’s 80 year-old cabinet secretary.

“It all amounted to an unusual display of one-upmanship in a meeting between close allies,” the Associated Press concluded. It was also a stunning violation of protocol: in any other administration, the lead spokesman on foreign policy would be the Secretary of State, a position now held by former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. He, however, has been effectively sidelined, and media stories last week said he was deeply angry over his treatment by the White House.{{c

AP통신은 “가까운 동맹국 간 회의에서 보기 드문 우월감의 표출로 끝이 났다"고 결론을 내렸다. 로스 장관의 발언은 의전 규칙을 명백히 위반한 것이기도 하다. 과거 미 행정부에서는 국무부 장관이 주로 외교 정책을 대변해왔다. 그러나 과거 엑슨모빌 최고경영자(CEO)를 지낸 렉스 틸러슨 국무장관은 회담에서 철저히 배제됐다. 지난주 여러 언론매체는 틸러슨 장관이 백악관의 대우에 크게 분노했다고 보도했다.


Yet, as with most confrontations between Americans and South Koreans, there was a hidden undercurrent to the story that was missed by the US and Korean media.

Ross, as Moon must know from his experience as a labor lawyer in Busan, is the same New York capitalist who led the wave of vulture investors who descended on South Korea during the IMF crisis of the 1990s. During that time, foreign companies and private equity funds made small fortunes buying and selling bankrupt Korean companies – including, in Ross’ case, steel manufacturers – while thousands of Korean workers lost their jobs.  

In one incident I reported on in 1999, Ross himself helped break a strike at the bankrupt Halla Group. Even though Ross was rewarded by Kim Dae Jung’s Blue House for his efforts during the crisis, many of his victims were left with nothing. Ross left Korea “with a reputation as a swindler who made exorbitant profits out of vulnerable companies,” a Korean economist told The New York Times in 2006.  South Korea, of course, has come roaring back since then, and is now the 12th largest economy in the world.

But there was a lesson in Ross’s rant. By pushing his decades-old agenda of forcing changes in the Korean economy, Ross was acting, like Trump and his family often do, on his own parochial concerns and personal financial interests. For a moment, US foreign policy was totally focused on the interests of one rich man. It was a reminder that, despite all the rhetoric about the alliance and their shared interests, South Korea and the United States, and their respective, presidents, are on sharply divergent paths in 2017.

For Moon, the purpose of his visit was to firm up the US-South Korean military alliance and seek common purpose with Trump on North Korea. During the first two days of his trip, he paid emotional visits to the Korean War Memorial and with US Marines who had helped his parents escape from North Korea in 1950. In a major concession on North Korea before the summit, Kang had signalled that the contentious deployment of THAAD – currently delayed by an environmental review - would be eventually approved by Seoul. Moon reaffirmed this policy when he met with US lawmakers and Republican leaders on Thursday.

As a result of his actions, Moon got much of what he wanted. In his meetings with Trump, they agreed to leave the door open to dialogue with North Korea "under the right circumstances," according to their joint statement. Trump, meanwhile, "supported President Moon's aspirations to restart inter-Korean dialogue on issues including humanitarian affairs.” He also confirmed South Korea's "leading role" in creating conditions for peaceful reunification.

Still, Trump made it clear from the start that his unilateral approach was still in play, particularly towards China. One day before Moon arrived in Washington, Trump’s Treasury Department announced new sanctions against China as a way to pressure North Korea, charging four Chinese banks and individuals with laundering money for Pyongyang. But his directive, which was accompanied by a major US arms sale to Taiwan, was widely interpreted “as a shot across the bow not only to Beijing, but also to Mr. Moon, since it emphasizes pressure over diplomacy,” The New York Times commented.

In another sign of bilateral dischord that same day, Trump’s national security adviser, former Army general H.R. McMaster, declared that Trump was preparing a list of military options against North Korea. “There’s recognition that there has to be more pressure on the regime,” he told the Center for a New American Security, a Democratic-aligned think tank heavily funded by military contractors.{{c

같은 날 양국 간 불화를 보여준 또다른 사례는 맥마스터 미 국가안보보좌관이 트럼프 정부가 북한에 대한 군사적 조치 목록을 준비하고 있다고 밝힌 것이다. 그는 군수업체들로부터 많은 후원을 받는 민주당 계열 싱크탱크인 CNAS(Center for a New American Security: 신미국안보센터)와의 인터뷰에서 “북한 정권에 더욱 큰 압박을 가할 필요가 있다는 인식이 있다"이라고 말했다.


Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump emphasized how the deepening military relationship with South Korea was good for business. He noted that South Korea is “giving very big orders to the United States for military. They’re buying F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed and buying other military equipment at a level that they’ve never done before, so that’s good.” (he didn’t mention that Lockheed also makes the THAAD system.)

How Moon responded to Ross’s lecture on Korean trade practices has yet to be reported. But it was obvious that Trump’s economic offensive did not go over well with him and his delegation. On Saturday, just before he left for Seoul, Moon told Korean reporters that any talk of renegotiating KORUS was “outside of the agreement” he reached with the White House.

Despite the friction, however, Moon appeared immensely satisfied with his meetings, particularly Trump’s agreement with his dual approach to North Korea and their emphasis on sanctions and dialogue. “Securing President Trump’s support for South Korea’s leading role in fostering a favorable condition for a peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula and resumption of inter-Korean dialogue was a very important achievement,” he told a gathering of overseas Koreans just before he left on Saturday.

US officials and observers were also pleased. “Everyone was expecting a train wreck,” Victor Cha, the top Korea specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Newstapa after Moon’s Friday night speech at the think tank. “But on the contrary, everything went very well.”

Asked if the Korean government’s environmental review of THAAD might present a future problem for the alliance, Cha said the United States was assured by Foreign Minister Kang’s “unequivocal” remarks to CSIS last Monday that Seoul “has no intention to basically reverse” its commitment to THAAD. “That was very important, and cleared the air,” said Cha (he would not confirm or deny rumors that he may be the next US ambassador to Seoul).

In any case, the CSIS speech served as a kind of stamp of approval of Moon by Washington’s foreign policy establishment. There, sitting in the front row, were many of the country’s best known diplomats and national security officials. They included two former Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright; Richard Armitage, Powell’s former deputy at State and a former Pentagon official; former Secretary of Defense William Cohen; and Richard Lugar, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime player in US-Korea relations. Afterwards, President Moon spent nearly two hours meeting with the CSIS board of directors in a “wide-ranging” discussion, according to Cha.

“This was the same crowd that turned out to see Park Guen-hye last year,” noted Sang Joo Kim, the executive vice president of the Institute for Corean-American Studies, a local organization of Korea experts. “But times have changed.”

Moon’s first public appearance at the US Chamber of Commerce provided a dramatic display of the corporate interests driving American policy. Several hundred business people were in attendance, as well as dozens of officials from the Departments of Treasury, State and Commerce as well as the Office of the US Trade Representative.

Many attendees were from the defense industry, including United Technologies, the owner of jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney. Mark Lippert, the former US ambassador who recently joined Boeing Corporation as vice president for international business, was virtually mobbed by admirers of his recent tenure in Seoul. Others wore badges from PhRMA, the huge pharmaceutical industry lobby; AirBNB, the global rental company; and corporate giants CIGNA, Honeywell and Qualcomm. Korean companies Doosan, LG and Samsung were also in attendance.

One of the largest US contingents came from the LNG industry in Texas and the US Gulf Coast. At one table, I met Kathleen Eisbrenner, the founder and CEO of a Texas company called NextDecade, which is building a massive gas liquification plant in Brownsville, TX, with the goal of exporting LNG to South Korea and other Asian markets. Jee Yoon, NextDecades’ business development manager, proudly pointed to the executives at his table from GE, one of the nation’s largest corporations, which has invested in the company.

Two days later, at the White House, Trump announced that Cheniere Energy of Louisiana was “sending its first shipment of American liquefied natural gas to South Korea in a deal worth more than $25 billion.” With Korea Gas in the market for more LNG, the other companies will be cutting similar deals soon. To get there, however, US executives at the meeting said they needed Moon and Trump to take a united stand on North Korea. “The two of them should stand together and say we’re lined up when it comes to North Korea,” Jeff Jones, the director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, was overheard saying. “That will send a strong message.”

But President Moon was looking beyond the confrontation with the North. In his conciliatory speech to the Chamber, he made a strong case for his peace initiatives, arguing that negotiations towards resolving the North Korean nuclear issue would benefit the United States by creating new business opportunities for American corporations.

As the peace process unfolds, Moon promised the Chamber, “you will be able to invest in South Korea with no concerns” and therefore “gain an interest in future investments in North Korea.” It was an appeal to the best of American sensibilities, but it’s difficult to know if anyone listened.

One of the most dramatic contrasts between Moon and Trump was their personal styles of dealing with the press and the public. Throughout the summit, US news coverage was dominated by Trump’s bizarre tweets attacking Mika Brzezinski, a well-known media figure. “Mr. President, do you regret any of your tweets?” one reporter could be heard shouting at Trump as Moon made his first entrance to the White House. The controversy worsened over the weekend, when Trump tweeted a video of himself wrestling with a figure from CNN, the network he disdains and calls “fake news.”

Moon, however, seemed to take delight in his encounters with both the public and the press. During his speech at the Chamber, a crowd of Koreans gathered in front of the ornate building near the White House to welcome him. Some had just come from a separate demonstration at the White House protesting THAAD. Suddenly, President Moon appeared in their midst, shaking hands and greeting his fellow Koreans. One of them was Hana Yang, a former resident of Seoul who had voted for Moon in the last election. “This is an unforgettable memory,” she told me. “We believe he will make our country much better.”

On Saturday, in Moon’s last event in Washington, over 500 overseas Koreans showed up at the Capitol Hilton to hear him speak about his visit. One of them was Haeran Ku, an interior designer from New York. She explained that her father, Ku Ik Kyun, had been an independence fighter and under Park Chung Hee, he was later jailed. When he died at the age of 106, Park would not allow him to be buried in a national cemetery. “So imagine how happy I am that Moon Jae-in is president now,” she told me. “He’s taking all the right steps.”

H.K. Suh, the vice president of the National Association of Korean Americans and a longtime activist from the DC area, said the crowd at the speech was very diverse in comparison to previous visits by Park Guen-hye and other former presidents. “Those supporting the candlelight vigils and the victims of the Sewol were all represented,” he said. “The people were very enthused and energized.” Moon’s primary message, Suh added, is that while the alliance is strong and important, “it’s time now for South Korea to get in the driver’s seat.” As a result, “back home there’s going to be more room for intra-Korea dialogue, with will lead to a reduction of tensions.”