The election of Donald Trump as American president is likely a loss for South Korea, or at best a neutral event. The next four years will probably bring a U.S. strategic disinterest in South Korea, and possibly a serious trade dispute. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is unlikely to fracture. But sensitive issues, such as Korean defense contributions under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), and South Korean compliance with the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) are likely to divide the partners once again. This will incentivize Korean conservatives to improve relations with Japan, as occurred in the 1970s when U.S. President Jimmy Carter and South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee fell out.
One caveat to this prediction of course is Trump's volatile personality and affinity for unpredictability. It is simply unclear how Trump will respond when North Korea inevitably insults him. That said, I doubt Trump will wander into the North Korean policy morass. Trump's narcissism and laziness strongly suggest he will avoid intractable issues with few public opinion benefits, such the Israel-Palestine conflict or North Korea. A consensus seems to be emerging that Trump "must" deal with North Korea.
I doubt Trump sees it that way. The North Korean threat to the United States is a function of America's alignment with South Korea, and Trump has expressed much skepticism about U.S. alliances. Were there no U.S.-South Korea alliance, it is highly unlikely that small, poor, backward North Korea would have spent the enormous sums required to strike the continental United States (with an intercontinental or submarine-launched ballistic missile). Previous American presidents carried this risk because of a broad commitment to a global liberal order of which South Korea's evolution from dictatorship to democracy was an outstanding example.
But Trump does not appear to care for such things. His speeches and Twitter comments evince little interest in U.S. leadership of the community of democratic states. Trump does not appear much motivated by political liberalism. It is easy to see him cutting deals, his preferred method of operation, with dictatorships without care for smaller states' fate or US alliance commitments. He has already thrown NATO into doubt, and during the campaign, he flippantly suggested he would meet with Kim Jong-un.
Instead of a liberal community of friendly states, Trump seems to see U.S. allies as burdens. They are fleecing the U.S. by not paying Washington enough. Free-riding is indeed an old problem in the US alliance network. American allies spend significantly smaller proportions of their GDP on defense than the U.S. Washington has complained about this for years. Trump seems poised to make this a major issue.
Although Trump's recent phone call with South Korea's acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, confirmed the U.S.'s commitment to defend South Korea, Trump's initial response to North Korea is currently uncertain. One thing South Korea can depend on is its alliance with Japan. Since the comfort women deal, South Korea and Japan have worked closely together on the Northern threat. The recent General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) further enhanced this alliance. The agreement finally made sustained South Korea-Japan cooperation possible.
Besides slacking allies, Trump's other favorite foreign policy hobbyhorse is trade and the ostensibly unfair trade deals the U.S. enters into. Trump has already signaled U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a desire to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement. If Trump holds this course, KORUS would be an obvious future target. It is one of the more important trade deals worked out under the Obama administration; it is new enough that it could be rolled back with only moderate difficulty; and it is with an Asian exporter. Trump has publicly criticized Asian mercantilism as trade cheating since the 1980s.
So what might South Korea do? The emotionally satisfying, and therefore most likely, response is to hit back at Trump tit-for-tat. The South Korean government and media will likely assail Trump's free-rider and trade cheater critiques out of sheer nationalist pique. This is unwise. For although South Koreans dislike to hear it, their relationship with the US is asymmetric, which gives Trump enormous leverage. KORUS grants South Korean firms better access to the world's wealthiest market, while the alliance adds substantial firepower, plus intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, to South Korean defense at a very low cost. As North Korea is only a threat to the U.S. because the U.S. is in Korea, Trump could wield the obvious threat of a US withdrawal to extract concessions from Seoul.
A more diplomatic South Korean answer for the Trump era might be to make reasonable concessions, such as greater SMA payments and more committed KORUS implementation, in low-profile negotiations, while ignoring Trump's public bluster. I imagine European leaders will do this as well. Much of the American establishment, including the military and business community, wish to retain the South Korean relationship. Also, Trump's many conflicts of interests and outrages mean he may well be impeached or fail to be re-elected. Best to wait out the four year orange storm, rather than provoking Trump's pride into a conflict where South Korea has much more to lose than the U.S.
Robert Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing may be found at his website, Asian Security Blog.