By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Donald Trump should take extra caution not to arouse anti-American grievances in South Korea at a time when the Asian ally undergoes a leadership change, a former senior U.S. diplomat said.
Christopher Hill, former assistant secretary of state who also served as ambassador to South Korea, made the remark, stressing the importance of keeping relations with South Korea strong in coping with nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.
"For Trump, any strategy to eliminate North Korea's nuclear program ... should include some obvious, but crucial, elements. For starters, the U.S. must maintain strong ties with its two regional allies -- Japan and South Korea," Hill said in a Project Syndicate article.
"The new administration will have to be smart about pursuing other goals, such as trade and military cooperation, with these countries. Both tend to be extremely sensitive to changes in public opinion, and the U.S. must take care not to arouse grievances over secondary issues, especially during what could be a turbulent year in South Korea," he said.
Hill said that South Korea has been mired in a corruption scandal that culminated in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, and "considerable uncertainty" lies ahead as a presidential vote to elect a successor to Park could take place as early as May.
The retired career diplomat, who served as chief negotiator in nuclear talks with North Korea, said that the communist nation has been on every US president's list of foreign-policy concerns since the 1980s, but warned, "This time, the threat is real."
"During Trump's watch, North Korea could very well obtain the means to strike the United States with a weapon of mass destruction," he said. "There are no good options for addressing the problem; and yet Trump cannot simply ignore it, or outsource it to China, as he suggested doing during the presidential campaign."
Trump and aides have not outlined what their North Korea policy will look like. But it will likely center on pressuring China to exercise more of its leverage as the North's main food and energy provider to rein in the provocative regime.
Trump has repeatedly accused Beijing of gaining massive profits through unfair trade and currency practices in what he calls "totally one-sided trade" with the U.S. while refusing to help rein in its communist neighbor.
He has even raised questions why the U.S. should stick to the "one-China" policy of diplomatically recognizing only Beijing, not Taiwan, and spoke by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the first time in decades that a U.S. president or president-elect has done so, in a breach of the decadeslong diplomatic tradition.
"Trump and his advisers appeared to have concluded that the best way to upend China's strategic position was to subject all past conventions, including the "One China" policy, to reexamination. The thinking behind this approach is that China will ultimately make concessions to regain its prized status as the only Chinese government that the US will recognize," Hill said.
"But, to use Trump's phrase, 'It won't happen.' China is not a subcontractor on a construction project, and it has means at its disposal to apply its own pressure on the new US administration. Raising issues that have long been resolved is not conducive to bilateral cooperation, and will only exacerbate the growing strategic mistrust between China and the U.S.," he said.
Hill called for the Trump administration to set priorities in its dealings with Beijing, saying the U.S. foreign policy toward China has too often sought a broad array of goals without stopping to ask if some objectives might be more important than others.
"It is now incumbent upon the Trump administration to make a clear-minded assessment of U.S. interests in the region, and to prioritize its policies accordingly. One can only hope that it will focus on the North Korean nuclear threat, which is very real –- and could become acute sooner than anyone expects," he said.