Perhaps there is nothing wrong with South Korean Moon Jae-in calling on his aides to confront “resolutely” the onslaught of US protectionist moves against South Korea. Every country has the right to defend itself from unfair trade practices.
The problem is that one cannot be sure whether Moon would be able to – as his aides avowed – separate trade issues from the security alliance with the US, which has become more critical due to the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis. The currently unfolding trade conflict between South Korea and the US mostly stems from US President Donald Trump’s “America First” campaign to protect its economic interests at the expense of the global trade order and its foreign partners. It is apparent that South Korea has become a prime target of the US trade offensive. In line with Trump’s election promise, the two sides are already negotiating over a revision of their bilateral free trade agreement, which Trump called a “disaster” on claims it stole American jobs. Recently, the US slapped a preliminary 45 per cent tariff on Korean machinery imports and initiated safeguards against Korean large washing machines and solar cells.
It also announced plans to impose higher import tariffs on steel products from all countries or a group of 12 countries, including South Korea.
There is more to come. US firms have already asked for government intervention over Korean-exported semiconductors and the Washington government is threatening to impose punitive tariffs on Korean TV sets and cars as well. All these indiscriminatory assaults show the Trump administration is making Korea a scapegoat for its aggressive trade policy aimed at protecting American economic interests.
Trump’s response to news that General Motors will close one of its four plants in Korea also demonstrated how he regards Korea in economic terms. “You don’t hear these things, except for the fact that Trump became president,” he said. “So they’re moving back from Korea to Detroit.” Indeed, Trump is using South Korea as a success case in fulfilling his election promise to take American jobs back from foreign countries.
Another concern is that the recent US trade policy against South Korea may be linked to Washington’s frustration with the South Korean government’s reconciliatory approach toward North Korea.
There were many signs that the US did not like the Moon government’s efforts to bring about a thaw in inter-Korean relations – without seeking any progress in denuclearisation – on the occasion of the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
It is against this backdrop that there are some concerns about Moon’s call for taking on recent US protectionist moves against Korea. Moon called on officials to consider taking the cases to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Given that the WTO handling of such cases usually takes a long time and any favourable ruling could not make up for the damage already done, Moon’s instructions may have been a mere political gesture. Nonetheless, Moon’s position, which contrasts with his low-key reaction to China’s retaliation against the deployment of a US missile shield system in South Korea, could escalate trade tension between the two countries.
Any strain in the countries’ relations is undesirable – all the more so because Trump often uses trade issues in dealing with foreign countries. The prime case is China, for which Trump linked trade sanctions like the designation of Beijing as a currency manipulator to its role in pressuring North Korea over the nuclear and missile crisis. In other words, how Trump feels about trade issues with South Korea could affect his position on the alliance with Seoul and policy on North Korea.
Both Moon and Trump should be reminded that it would be difficult for their countries to maintain a flawless partnership and alliance in security if they become antagonised against each other over whatever issue it might be. What’s obvious is nothing can precede security.