Back in June, many expected the summit between Moon Jae In, the newly elected president of South Korea, and President Donald Trump, to fail. Moon had to overcome the perception that he was anti-American, a lazy caricature based on the last liberal South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun, for whom Moon served as chief of staff. Then there was Trump, who, during his presidential campaign, had blasted the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA), signed in 2012, as a “catastrophic” deal that supposedly “destroyed 100,000 jobs” in the auto industry. Trump also suggested that the U.S. military close its base in South Korea, all while North Korea was escalating tensions with nuclear weapon and long-range missile tests. Such contempt from the president of the United States for a vital ally was virtually unheard of.
Defying expectations, the Moon-Trump summit was viewed as a success. The two leaders stressed the importance of their ties, and appeared to be on the same page with regards to North Korea—apply pressure until the Kim regime comes to the negotiating table. Although there were talks of re-negotiating the KORUS FTA, a South Korean plan to import U.S. shale gas and construct factories in America seemed to soften the blow. (Seemingly to make the implicit explicit, Moon even brought with him a large contingent of South Korean business leaders.) When the first meeting between the representatives of the two countries to re-negotiate the KORUS FTA took place on August 22 in Seoul, South Koreans saw it as a hopeful sign that the meeting happened in the South Korean capital rather than in Washington.