Worry, doubt and indignation as Asia awaits Trump
Much like the prelude to a bruising typhoon, Trump’s upcoming visit has inspired fear, resignation, indignation, morbid curiosity — even, according to one South Korean politician, feelings of national disgrace.
During his first months as president, Trump, who will visit Japan, South Korea and China before attending regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines, has blended moments of flattery with vows to rip up trade deals, destroy a sovereign nation with nuclear weapons and generally crash long-standing norms of diplomacy anywhere it suits his aims.
He has wined and dined the leaders of China and Japan, and been fawned over in return, and his shaky ties with South Korea’s leader have led to worries that Washington could take military action against North Korea without Seoul’s approval.
Looming over his entire trip is one of the strangest relationships in the world — an often surreal exchange of threats of annihilation between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Trump, who has also occasionally offered praise and dialogue.
It’s something of a marvel then that despite Trump’s unpredictability and the torpedoing of an Obama-era trade deal, there may actually be more continuity than change in Washington’s Asia policy.
“People joke that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. The same can be said for Trump’s Asia policy and relationships,” longtime Asia analyst Ralph Cossa said, referring to the notoriously complex German composer. “This will be put to the test when he goes to Asia, but I think the visit is likely to be more successful than many fear or predict.”
A look at some of the issues and leaders Trump will face during his trip, which begins when he arrives in Japan on Sunday:
“SMART COOKIE” IN NORTH KOREA
Unlike most of his recent predecessors, Trump will not visit the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone that looks out over North Korea.
Still, his quarrel with the North’s ruler will dominate the trip.
Amid North Korean nuclear and missile tests and a standard barrage of belligerent rhetoric, Trump has veered from threats to unleash “fire and fury” on the North to calling Kim a “pretty smart cookie” and saying he’d be “honored” to talk, under the right circumstances.
Trump’s comments have caused both confusion and fears of war, especially in Japan and South Korea, but it is unclear how seriously to take declarations that don’t appear to be policy pronouncements.
Trump likes to say that a soft policy by his predecessor, Barack Obama, has allowed North Korea to stand on the brink of a viable arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles that can hit U.S. mainland cities.
Despite his criticism, Trump has yet to distinguish his own approach from Obama’s, Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, told U.S. lawmakers in July.
“Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to date has been anything but,” Klingner said, and sends mixed messages about whether Washington will pursue diplomacy or war to deal with Pyongyang.
“DISGRACE” IN SOUTH KOREA
Trump’s ties with South Korea’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, are causing some serious angst in the country.
Moon took office in May with hopes of reaching out to Pyongyang. But a parade of North Korean missile and nuclear tests has forced him to take a harder line.
While he has gone out of his way to emphasize coordination with Trump, a strain between the allies is evident.
Trump has suggested that Seoul should pay the entire cost of a U.S. missile defense system in the South that many there don’t even want. He also threatened to end a hard-won U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement that past American presidents had portrayed as an alliance bulwark.
Amid dueling threats by Trump and Kim Jong Un, Moon has issued pointed reminders that there can be no U.S. military action without Seoul’s consent.