President Donald Trump is scheduled to arrive in South Korea’s capital tomorrow on the second leg of his first official Asian tour. What he has to say about bilateral trade with Seoul, the 28,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in the country and perhaps most importantly, North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs and the threat they pose will all be closely watched for signs of U.S. intentions in the region. Mr. Trump will need to address all these volatile issues, but he also must be aware that anything he says could make an already fraught situation worse if he doesn’t choose his words carefully. That’s not been the president’s strong suit so far, but it’s imperative he do so now if this trip is to be counted a success.
Coming on the heels of his visit to Japan over the weekend, Mr. Trump’s agenda will likely include many of the same themes the president discussed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The president wants both Mr. Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to ramp up the pressure on North Korea with tougher economic sanctions and closer military cooperation. Mr. Trump also wants the South Korean and Japanese governments to shoulder more of the cost of maintaining the large U.S. military presence in their countries and to buy more American-made weapons to defend themselves against North Korean aggression.
At least one sticking point to Mr. Trump’s demand that Japan and South Korea contribute more to their own defense appears to have been overcome recently when South Korea and China reached an agreement allowing Seoul to deploy the U.S-made THAAD missile defense system to counter North Korea’s ballistic missile threat. China had long criticized the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system as an attempt to undermine its own military capabilities, but Beijing dropped its opposition after Seoul promised to limit how many additional THADD batteries it would deploy and how they could be used in joint military exercises with Japan and the U.S.
Despite the underlying strength of the the U.S. alliances with its Asian partners, these are diplomatically sensitive relationships that must be cultivated and treated with care. South Korea’s liberal President Moon, in particular, has been trying to walk a fine line to avoid antagonizing North Korea’s unstable leader, Kim Jong-un. Today, South Korean forces reportedly were on alert following reports that North Korea planned to stage some sort of large-scale weapons test during Mr. Trump’s visit as a rebuke to the American president. Mr. Trump must remain circumspect in any U.S. response to Pyongyang’s provocations that potentially could snowball into an open military conflict that neither side wants.
This is not a question of Mr. Trump holding his tongue for the sake of diplomatic niceties that have little or no impact in the real world. The U.S. and North Korea may be closer to an outbreak of hostilities than at any time since the Korean War ended nearly seven decades ago. And the cost of such a conflict, according to a recent Congressional Budget Office report, staggers the imagination: The CBO estimated that a war on the Korean Peninsula could result in as many as 300,000 casualties in the first few days even if were limited to conventional weapons. A war that went nuclear could dwarf that figure by orders of magnitude and draw in neighboring countries as well — with devastating consequences for the entire region.
Mr. Trump is notably fond of the kind of colorful, sweeping statements that often cross the line into the combative and the bombastic. This is an occasion during which he must find the inner discipline to resist such impulses. No doubt Mr. Trump’s advisers had in mind that propensity for putting his foot in his mouth when they scrubbed a purely ceremonial visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea out of concern he might say something needlessly inflammatory about the North or its leader while there. It probably would be better for him to say nothing at all rather than risk the kind of verbal wrong-footedness that literally could ignite a geo-political explosion by a single thoughtless comment. If ever there was a time for Mr. Trump to act presidentially and live up to the grave responsibilities of his office, that time is now.
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