Gwangju, South Korea—On May 2, Moon Jae-in, the Korean politician who is expected to win next Tuesday’s presidential election here, issued a stern warning to the United States. Pointing to the escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States, he told The Washington Post that South Korea must “take the lead on matters on the Korean Peninsula.” Seoul, he added, “should not take the back seat.”
Moon, a progressive politician with deep roots in South Korea’s left, has repeated these words throughout his campaign. They signal his wish to change the dynamics of US-South Korean relations and meet his country’s desire for a more independent foreign policy. In particular, he wants to use economic and political incentives to ease tensions with the North—a position anathema to many in Washington.
The US government, Congress, and the Pentagon should listen to Moon and his voters. Over the past two months, President Trump has done more to alienate South Korea than any American leader in the past 40 years. If Trump and the American politicians and pundits who support his militaristic approach to North Korea aren’t careful and continue to ignore this country’s wishes, they could spark the most serious wave of anti-Americanism in the South since 1980.
That was the year the Carter administration—which had made human rights the centerpiece of US foreign policy—helped South Korea’s military put down a citizens’ uprising in this city against a group of generals who had seized power to stave off the country’s first “democratic spring.”
As I first revealed in 1996, the White House made that decision knowing that hundreds of people had been massacred by Korean special forces only days before. The damage to US-Korean relations from this episode lasted for years, and shaped the attitude of many South Koreans toward the United States.
To be sure, a Gwangju-like repression is unlikely to ever happen again in South Korea. And the United States learned long ago that its support for military strongmen in Seoul seriously eroded its moral authority in Korea. But when it comes to national security issues, US officials have long preferred dealing with South Korea’s right wing.
During the past two American administrations, US officials embraced the hard-line policies toward North Korea taken by former president Park Geun-hye, who was recently impeached after months of candlelight vigils involving millions of angry citizens; she is now in jail, awaiting trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power. The US government was equally supportive of Lee Myung-bak, Park’s conservative predecessor.