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(Yonhap Interview) U.S. expert: Trump's hardline stance on China could have repercussions on S. Korea

All News 12:05 January 18, 2017

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- Incoming U.S. President Donald Trump's hardline stance on China could have negative repercussions impeding efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and hurting South Korea's economic interests, a top U.S. expert on Korea said Tuesday.

Trump has shown deeply negative views of China, repeatedly accusing Beijing of unfair trade and currency practices hurting American businesses, and slamming the country for failing to exercise enough pressure on North Korea to rein in the provocative regime.

Trump has even raised questions why the U.S. should stick to the "one-China" policy of diplomatically recognizing only Beijing, not Taiwan, and spoke by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen for the first time in decades as U.S. president or president-elect in a breach of the decades-long diplomatic tradition.

"There is a possibility that tensions between Washington and Beijing may become an obstacle to solving the North Korea problem," Scott Snyder, chief Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said in an email interview with Yonhap News Agency.

Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations

Last week, Trump's pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, also displayed a similarly negative view of China, accusing Beijing of making "empty promises" to put pressure on North Korea and saying Beijing "has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb" the North.

Tillerson also vowed to consider taking "actions" to get Beijing to fully enforce sanctions on Pyongyang in response to a question whether the U.S. would pursue "secondary sanctions" on Chinese firms and entities doing business with North Korrea.

U.S.-China "tensions will limit South Korea's options, given its continued reliance on the alliance with the United States," Snyder said. "On the other hand, the United States has an obligation to defend allies from discrimination or disproportionate costs that they may suffer as a result of being an alliance partner of the United States."

Relations between the South and China have already been strained as Beijing has strongly protested Seoul's decision to host a battery of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system. China has claimed THAAD poses a threat to its security interests despite repeated assurances from Seoul and Washington that it's purely a defensive system.

Trump has campaigned on his trademark "America First" foreign policy platform in which he pledged to bring jobs back from overseas and renegotiate free trade agreements he denounced as unfair, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA.

Trump has also denounced the free trade pact with South Korea as a "disaster" and a "job-killing" deal.

Snyder said that such a stance could cause tension in trade relations between South Korea and the U.S. going forward, but added the South could suffer more from U.S. trade measures aimed at punishing China.

"There is a possibility of greater trade tension between Washington and Seoul under the Trump administration, but I think the greater economic threat to South Korea is the possibility of suffering economic losses from trade measures aimed primarily at other states, such as China," he said.

Trump's election had raised questions about the fate of the alliance, as he has expressed deeply negative views of U.S. security commitments overseas, as well as a willingness to withdraw 28,500 American troops from the South unless Seoul pays more for them.

Since his election, however, Trump has shown signs of retreat from his campaign rhetoric, making remarks reaffirming the alliance with South Korea and filling some key posts with incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and other people valuing the alliance.

"I primarily expect continuity in the alliance rather than a sharp break in US policy toward South Korea as an alliance partner," Snyder said.

He added, however, the new government would press for greater burden sharing with allies.

"President-elect Trump's cabinet picks have consistently stated that they value the alliances and that they expect alliance partners to live up to their responsibilities. I believe this means that the United States will seek stepped up cost-sharing on defense, including in the context of the US-ROK alliance," the expert said.

Last week, Tillerson also said allies should do their parts, saying the U.S. "cannot look the other way at allies who do not meet their obligations." Mattis also said that while the U.S. fulfills its treaty obligations, he expects "our allies and partners to uphold their obligations as well."

Snyder also said that there is a "likelihood of conflict" between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

"President-elect Trump has stated that he will not tolerate a North Korean direct strike capability on the United States, but North Korea persists in pursuing such a capability. This means that there is a likelihood of conflict between Trump and Kim Jong-un, but the conflict may come in many forms, not just military," he said.

"Preemption is the last possible option that the Trump administration would use to defend the United States from a North Korean effort to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon," the expert said.

Snyder said the North is also expected to continue to seek nuclear development while at the same time pursuing a dialogue with the U.S. "on more flexible terms than the Obama administration was willing to offer," such as recognition of Pyongyang as a nuclear power.

"But no US administration will be able to acknowledge and accept North Korea as a nuclear state," he said.

jschang@yna.co.kr
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