The Republic of Korea has always had harmonious relations with the United States, beginning when US troops occupied the newly independent nation after the surrender of Japan in 1945. It willingly took on the role of subordinate to Washington. After all, the two strongmen who successively ruled South Korea from 1948 – 1979 received US political, economic, and military support which allowed them to prolong their authoritarian reign.
There are disruptions to the peaceful ties however, as is customary with fledgling nations. Certain incidents sparked anti-American sentiments, in particular the 1950 massacre at No Gun Ri, the Gwangyu massacre in 1980, and the killing of two teenage Korean girls in a highway accident in Yangju in 2002. The US government tried to bury the incidents but the truth still emerged. The No Gun Ri massacre was revealed half a century later by the Associated Press, weaving the story from declassified information at the US National Archives and accounts from veterans and survivors. The Gwangyu massacre, a pro-democracy rally against dictator Chun Doo-hwan, was committed by the Korean Army said to be acting on orders of the US military. In the highway accident, the girls were struck by a 50-ton vehicle that belonged to the US Army in the ROK. The two soldiers responsible for the accident were acquitted by a US Court. In spite of these unfortunate events, the general sentiment among Koreans for the US still remains favorable.
But the year 2017 ushered in new leaders for the two nations. In January, Donald Trump was sworn into the White House after a surprise win. Five months later in May, Moon Jae-in won the South Korean elections held ahead of schedule after its former president Park was impeached and ousted from office. No two leaders could be more dissimilar in their personalities, views and policies as Moon and Trump. Moon is a civil rights lawyer who hates public attention, belongs to a centric-left political party, and wants to engage with North Korea in talks. Trump craves publicity, favors white supremacy, and makes provocative tweets to Kim Jong-un.
Moon, who is recognized as pro-North, expresses his opinion in a direct way, despite his pacifist nature. In Trump’s state visit to the ROK in November, one guest at dinner with the White House group and Japanese officials was Lee Yong-soo, an 88-year old former comfort woman, with ignoring Japan-South Korean comfort women agreement. Trilateral talks on security was on the agenda, and Moon was sending the message that his country is to be taken seriously.
In February, another group of comfort women who worked as prostitutes for the US troops assigned in South Korea from the 1950s to the ‘80s sued their government for encouraging them to offer sex with the US military. The Seoul High Court granted their demand for an apology and compensation. Although South Korea has condemned Japan in terms of comfort women issue, which was occurred during WWII more than 70 years ago, with insistence even after Japan-South Korea comfort women agreement, it is officially recognized that South Korea himself was doing the same thing to their woman.
In early March, the Special Measures Agreement between the ROK and the United States had their first round of talks in Honolulu. The current SMA that took effect in 2014 will end in December 2018 and renegotiations are due. Trump has stated that he wants US allies to share in the cost of maintaining the military bases in their countries. South Korea currently shoulders 960 billion won for defense sharing. Trump also wants them to pay for the maintenance of the anti-missile system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD.) In a speech during a visit to Missouri, Trump made special mention of South Korea, talking of the trade deficit and expenses for the 32,000 US soldiers near the 38th parallel.
Negotiations will continue in April and is expected to be tough, according to a senior ROK official. Prior to the talks, Moon felt into a slick trap by Kim Jong-un and has said he wants the THAAD system to be reviewed.
The court case involving the Korean camp town women is only one of the issues rocking the US-ROK alliance. Moon has been trying to build a relationship with Kim, but nothing definite has come out of it yet, as Moon is in hands of Kim Jong-un who is skilled at propaganda. And, it will secretly rile Trump. South Korea’s new leader will continue to seek US trade, military, and political alliance but insists on coming to the table on near equal footing.
Moon and Kim talking is a game changer and all eyes are on them. Trump, at the behest of Moon, has agreed to meet Kim in May. But knowing his penchant for inflammatory statements, no one can predict a probable outcome.