North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces placed within range of Seoul, and if a full-blown war broke out on the peninsula, some estimates suggest the number of casualties could be in the millions. So it’s safe to say that no country has a greater stake in the outcome of diplomacy with North Korea than South Korea. And yet, as tensions have risen between the United States and North Korea, the White House has consistently treated America’s ally South Korean in a high-handed and disrespectful manner.
In the wake of Trump’s Thursday announcement that he was calling off his planned summit with Kim, it was reported that South Korea’s presidential Blue House had been thrown for a loop, with one official saying they “are trying to figure out what President Trump’s intention is and the exact meaning of it.” An apparently shocked President Moon Jae-in called a midnight meeting of his Cabinet to discuss Trump’s move. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wouldn’t comment on reports that the South Koreans had not been informed, telling reporters, “I don’t want to get into who all we notified.” At this point, the fact that the White House wouldn’t even bother to tell the country that had delivered the original invitation for the talks that it was cancelling them shouldn’t even come as a surprise.
Since he was a candidate, Trump has harped on the theme that South Korea freeloads on U.S. security guarantees, accusing the country—inaccurately—of not contributing financially for the presence of U.S. troops on its soil. After taking office, he threatened to cancel a recently negotiated trade pact and demanded South Korea pay for the deployment of the THAAD missile system, which Seoul had agreed to host at U.S. urging, despite significant domestic opposition. Trump has frequently lapsed into language that sounds like extortion, threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea unless it agrees to more favorable trade terms.
He repeated a historically dubious claim told to him by Chinese President Xi Jinping that Korea used to be “part of China.” He also had the gall to accuse Moon Jae-in’s government of “appeasement” in its attempts to restart dialogue with the North, though he was willing to discuss the possibility of far more serious concessions in the lead-up to the summit. While Moon has consistently given Trump credit for the recent breakthroughs with North Korea, Trump has rarely if ever reciprocated, talking instead about how he was the one who deserved a Nobel Peace Prize and had “everything” to do with a diplomatic opportunity.
Most seriously, he has frequently threatened preemptive military action against North Korea with seemingly little regard for the potential lethal consequences of that action for millions of Koreans. (Trump’s onetime choice for ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, was dropped from consideration for being too critical of the administration’s “bloody nose” proposal to launch a limited strike against North Korea. Cha warned it was likely to spark a wider war.)
According to Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump told him, “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.” Obviously, any U.S. president would make the choice to protect Americans over citizens of a foreign country, but again, Trump is talking about preemptive action. And the cavalier way he discusses the potential for nuclear war—“fire and fury” and big buttons and all that—doesn’t suggest that he’s giving much thought to the people who would be in the blast radius.