Sept. 3, 2017
Heather Hurlburt wrote for New York Magazine about North Korea's latest nuclear test and what the US should be doing in response.
Building a closer, more effective partnership between Beijing and Washington would demand two things from the United States. First, diplomacy that avoids needlessly embarrassing or angering Beijing and other regional players. And second, a willingness to yield on some of the regional partner’s most important priorities. In other words, basic negotiation and team-building skills.
However, the Trump administration’s actions toward the single most important actor among U.S. allies — South Korea — point in exactly the opposite direction. In recent weeks, U.S. military and diplomatic leaders have been at pains to reassure the new government in Seoul that the alliance is close and that they are secure under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The new South Korean president, by the way, hails from the left, which is historically more hostile to the U.S.: Moon Jae In is a former human-rights lawyer who spent time in jail under pro-Washington regimes. He was elected on a platform of skepticism — to put it mildly — toward Donald Trump. Managing this relationship would be tricky for any U.S. administration, but the Trump team has chosen to make it maximally difficult.
South Koreans — and the region — are well aware that Trump has questioned the value of the security alliance in the past. Although officials around Trump have worked hard to repair that damage in recent months, with visits from the vice-president and defense leaders, astonishingly, the White House has decided to reopen the wound. Trump chose the same period of ferment over the North’s nuclear progression to demand that Seoul renegotiate the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The South Korean president may have little fondness for his predecessor, who negotiated the treaty, but Moon Jae In also seems to have judged reopening it as not in his interests. Just this past weekend — even as U.S. intelligence knew that a nuclear test was likely imminent and had surely informed the White House — Trump threatened to unilaterally dump the U.S.-Korea trade treaty. This option would be so disruptive to commerce and employment that even Americans who had opposed the treaty spoke out against it. It would also be an enormous humiliation to the president of South Korea — and a terrible advertisement to Pyongyang, Beijing, and elsewhere about the value of a U.S. commitment.
This nuclear test is unnerving. It underlines that Washington and the region can’t ignore North Korea, can’t get distracted — and must put existential questions ahead of political ones. Unfortunately, the biggest question mark surrounds neither Beijing, Tokyo, nor Seoul, but Washington.