The president of South Korea has some sharp words for President Trump: South Korea gets to make the call about going to war with North Korea.
“Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula,” President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday in a nationally televised address. “Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action.”
And yesterday in an address to commemorate his first 100 days in office, Moon said Trump promised him that South Korea would be consulted before America takes any action against North Korea. However, he’s pretty sure it won’t come to that. "I can confidently say there will not be war again on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon continued.
Last week, Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on Kim Jong Un’s regime — apparently without stopping to check with Seoul how it felt about that. Given that Seoul is likely to be North Korea’s first target if war breaks out and is sitting within range of about 21,500 pieces of North Korean artillery, that might have been a polite thing to do.
Instead, Trump fired off a bellicose statement on his own, escalating the threat of war with the North in a way no US president has done in recent memory. And South Korea is not happy.
Moon’s statements are a clear message to Trump: Seoul must be involved in any decision to go to war. Full stop.
Moon wants to make South Korea more self-sufficient and less reliant on America
“We cannot rely only on our ally for our security,” Moon said in his speech. “When it comes to matters related to the Korean Peninsula, our country has to take the initiative in resolving them."
And he’s made moves to do just that. The New York Times reports that the US and South Korea are in talks to allow Seoul to build stronger ballistic missiles to defend itself against the North. They are also discussing putting more US-built missile defense systems on the peninsula.
In the meantime, Moon will abide by Trump’s economic and diplomatic approach toward Pyongyang. "The purpose of enhanced sanctions and pressure against the North is not to heighten military tensions but to bring it back to the negotiating table,” Moon said. “In this regard, the position of the Korean Government is not different from that of the US Government."
There’s a reason for him to highlight that: He wants South Korea to feature in any future diplomacy between the US and North Korea.
“Moon is telling Kim Jong Un, and possibly the Trump administration, that North Korea-US negotiations cannot happen without South Korea at the table,” Zachary Keck, an Asia security expert at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told me.
Moon isn’t trying to downgrade the US-South Korea relationship. In his remarks, he reiterated how South Korea will side with America as they push through the standoff with North Korea. Plus, South Korea still regards the United States as one of its most important allies.
But that doesn’t mean Moon would prefer that the US unilaterally make life-or-death decisions impacting his country.
His remarks may actually resonate with Trump’s own views, though, according to Georgetown University nuclear expert Matthew Kroenig. “The Trump administration has called on allies to take on more responsibility, and while Washington's commitment to Seoul is ironclad, it also supports South Korean steps to enhance its security,” he said in an interview.
Whether Trump is interested in hearing Moon’s opinion on any of this is a different question.