But in the end, Bush and Roh worked well together also. Roh repeatedly sought assurances that Washington would not start a war on the Korean Peninsula, which Bush repeatedly provided. In response, Roh made certain that South Korea remained a reliable ally. When America invaded Iraq, Roh immediately offered South Korea’s support, dispatching 3,600 troops for the post-war rebuilding effort in 2004 despite severe domestic opposition. According to Green, because of Roh’s commitment to the U.S.-Korea alliance, Bush came to value Roh Moo Hyun more than France’s Jacques Chirac or Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder.
In fact, the Korea-U.S. alliance remained stable even after the dynamic reversed, when the more hawkish Lee Myung Bak—he of “Massive Retaliation”—took office in 2007 and was paired with the less-hawkish Barack Obama. This reveals an important lesson about the relationship between Seoul and Washington where Pyongyang is concerned: Despite different levels of rhetoric and posturing, the end result does not change much when it comes time to take action. The fundamental, if unspoken, rule in relations between North Korea and South Korea has always been the same: Localized provocations will yield a response, but no one—not even the most saber-rattling of leaders—wants full-scale war.
On North Korea, the hawks are never entirely hawkish, nor are the doves all that dovish. When the North Korean navy engaged in provocations in the Yellow Sea in 1999 and 2002, the supposedly dovish Kim and Roh retaliated by killing scores of North Korean seamen. When a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean naval ship and killed 46 sailors in 2010, the Massive Retaliation promised by Lee produced only another round of verbal denunciations. Through all this, the United States has supported South Korea’s actions, regardless of the reputed difference between their presidents. This gives reason for optimism, regardless of the barbs from the Trump administration. For his part, Moon Jae In said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that he would meet with Trump at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss North Korea. Despite widespread misgivings in South Korea over Trump’s belligerence, Moon said, “I believe President Trump is more reasonable than he is generally perceived.”
In fact, if war does break out one day, it may not be from deliberate hawkishness but from a series of miscalculations based on inadvertent, incorrect signaling. From this perspective, the Trump administration’s embarrassment with the USS Carl Vinson is particularly worrisome. Despite the grand pronouncement that an armada was steaming toward the East Sea to respond to the North Korean threat, the naval-strike team was in fact thousands of miles away from the peninsula and was heading the opposite direction. What if North Korea had taken the Trump administration at its word and escalated tensions further—perhaps by attacking a target in South Korea, prompting further retaliation that would eventually escalate into Chinese and American intervention?
The true danger is not the hostile words, but the unsteady hands. This means that the real challenge for Moon Jae In, if elected, may not be lowering the rhetorical heat emanating from Washington, although that too would be necessary from time to time. Moon’s most important challenge in the U.S.-Korea alliance may be to promote greater communication and cooperation between the two allies, such that the Trump administration does not blunder into a nuclear war.