President Donald Trump’s “America First” pronouncements will frame the first major international trip of his administration this week, as Defense Secretary James Mattis visits South Korea and Japan.
Trump’s disruptive approach to foreign policy may challenge an already shaky government in Seoul, Mattis’ first stop.
“I think visiting Korea to continue with the existing agendas is an ill-advised action that in a way, ignores the Korean people’s will,” protester Kim Kang-yeon says. She and others are spending much of this week outside the Korean Ministry of Defense, demonstrating against the coming visit.
The current South Korean government may not last past the next few weeks. The defense minister who will meet with Mattis, and the acting president, are appointees of an impeached president, Park Geun-hye. They’re placeholders, until the president’s impeachment trial is over.
“So, this is a real dilemma,” says John Delury, professor of international relations at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “It’s a real dilemma for the Americans because they’re going to have a series of conversations with someone who really doesn’t speak for the South Korean public.”
Among the Korean public there is distrust of the new Trump administration on Korean matters. Mainly because Trump’s statements have been, in the eyes of many South Koreans, inconsistent. Trump has said that he would be willing have a burger with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — but also that the U.S.- South Korea alliance is stronger than ever.
“Trump was unexpectedly elected as the president,” protester Oh Mi-jeong says. “But his eccentric actions are just unpredictable.”
Which leads to another major question for the trip.
“Does Secretary Mattis actually speak for President Trump? Who’s really calling the shots on American foreign policy? Those are also huge questions that affect [South Koreans’] fate,” says Delury.
“The Korean peninsula is arguably the security fault line for Asia. You need to be very careful in your approach,” Delury says.
Both key U.S. allies — South Korea and Japan — are hoping for some clarity in what that approach will look like under Trump.
Haeryun Kang and Se-Eun Gong contributed to this story.