Trump is orchestrating a worldwide campaign to pressure North Korea on its nukes and missiles. He dispatches (finally) the USS Carl Vinson strike group to Korean waters and raises the possibility of a “major, major conflict” with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, we are working furiously to complete a THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea to intercept North Korean rockets.
At which point, out of the blue, Trump tells Reuters that Seoul will have to pay for the THAAD system. And by the way, that five-year-old U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement is a disaster and needs to be torn up.
Now, South Korea is in the middle of a highly charged presidential campaign. The pro-American president was recently impeached and is now under indictment. The opposition party is ahead. It is wary of the U.S., accommodating to North Korea and highly negative about installing that THAAD system on its soil.
We had agreed with Seoul that they would provide the land and the infrastructure, and we would pay the $1 billion cost. Without warning, Trump reneges on the deal, saying South Korea will have to foot the bill. This stirs anti-American feeling and gives opposition candidate Moon Jae-in the perfect campaign issue.
What is it with this president insisting that other people pay for things we want? And for what? In a $4 trillion budget, $1 billion is a rounding error.
So self-defeating was the idea that within three days, national security adviser H.R. McMaster had to walk it all back, assuring the South Koreans that we would indeed honor our agreement and send no $1 billion invoice.
But the damage was done. Moon’s campaign feasted. The pro-American party was thrown on its heels. And the very future of THAAD — and a continued united front against Pyongyang under a likely Moon administration — is in doubt.
What happens when the red phone rings at 3 in the morning?
I’d say: Let it ring. Let the wizard sleep. Forward the call to Defense Secretary Mattis.