'Korea Passing' is a sensitive issue in South Korea that Trump must be careful to avoid

  • “Korea Passing” occurs when countries overlook, or even ignore, South Korea on issues that affect Asia, particularly North Korea.
  • Trump has repeatedly preferred to deal with Japan and China, rather than South Korea, when it comes to the North.
  • This action feeds into the resentment South Koreans have toward its one-time colonial ruler Japan.

After North Korea launched its latest missile on Wednesday, the first country President Donald Trump appeared to call was not South Korea. He called Japan.

Though Trump spoke to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in shortly afterward, this small action points to a pattern of behaviour that irks South Koreans called, “Korea Passing.”The term describes how South Korean politicians and media feel their country is repeatedly overlooked, particularly with affairs concerning North Korea and the Korean Peninsula.

And the problem appears to have gotten worse since Trump – who acts as though North Korea falls under the US-China remit – took office.

“Trump is not very popular in South Korea. His decision to first contact Japan on two occasions, despite the urgency of the North Korean conflict and its immediate implications to the Republic of Korea, is of course undiplomatic,”Roald H. Maliangkay, director of Australian National University’s Korea Institute, told Business Insider.

Earlier in the year, during a period of intense North Korean military action, Trump held talks directly with Japan and China but not South Korea, and was accused of “skipping” the country. In September, Trump was accused of “bypassing” South Korea when the US independently flew fighter planes from a Japanese base towards the coast of North Korea.

Moon has made veiled comments about the issue, previously telling South Koreans, “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement.”

“Korea passing is a genuine concern,” Robert Kelly, an international relations expert at Pusan National University, told CNBC recently. “It is clearly the case that Trump and his flamboyant style have taken over the North Korea debate in 2017 and pushed Seoul aside. I would be worried if I were the South Koreans.”

South Korea resents Japan, and Trump isn’t helping

President Donald Trump (L) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he arrives at the White House on February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.Mario Tama/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump (L) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he arrives at the White House on February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Part of South Korea’s sensitivity to these slights is its contentious history with Japan, a country that is nearly always included in discussions about North Korea.

South Korea was ruled by Japan in the first half of the 20th century, with many feeling Japan tried to erase Korea’s cultural identity and even forced people to take Japanese names. And during World War II, Korean “comfort women” were forced to work in brothels by the Japanese.

Korea Passing thus plays into the fears South Korea has of “playing second fiddle to Japan,” as The Washington Post put it.

And, again, Trump is not helping.

Trump has a chummy relationship with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who shares his hardline approach to North Korea, which stands in stark contrast to the much more formal relationship Trump and Moon have developed.

And on his recent Asia tour, Trump spent only 48 hours in Tokyo, twice the amount he spent in Seoul.

“So far [Trump] appears completely uninformed and disinterested in international affairs. It’s an obvious thing to say, perhaps, but showing a genuine interest in the local culture, as well as respect for it, rather than accepting an invitation to play golf, would help a lot to improve his stature,” the Korea Institute’s Roald Maliangkay said.

Korea Passing is limited to politics

Interestingly, Korea Passing does not appear to occur in business.

This is a trend Maliangkay says is important for foreign business people to continue.

“Koreans are positively shrewd business people, and the business world would do well not to follow Trump’s approach,” he said.

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