By Rachel Lee
President Moon Jae-in is reluctant to back President Donald Trump's "free and open Indo-Pacific" initiative in an apparent bid to mend ties with China and have a balanced diplomacy with the four major neighboring powers.
However, Moon's position has caused confusion within his administration.
Seoul and Washington have also revealed a difference over the Indo-Pacific policy which included the joint statement between President Moon and President Trump, who was in Seoul on a two-day state visit, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The U.S. and Japan introduced the Indo-Pacific concept to replace the existing Asia-Pacific one by including India as a counterweight to China.
But South Korea feels burdened to actively join the U.S. promotion of the initiative because it needs to maintain a good relationship with China for trade promotion and the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.
In the joint statement announced Wednesday, President Trump stressed that "the United States-Republic of Korea alliance, which is built on mutual trust and shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law remains the linchpin for security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region."
However, a day later, a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said the country did not agree on the plan.
Kim Hyun-chul, a presidential aide for economic affairs, told reporters Thursday that President Moon listened to Trump's explanations about the initiative. Kim, who is accompanying Moon on his Southeast Asia visit, made it clear that the President did not agree on the country's participation in the free and open Indo-Pacific initiative.
The aide said that this was the first time for President Moon to learn about the plan that Trump advocates.
"Japan initiated the free and open Indo-Pacific idea, and it does not seem right for South Korea to join in the plan considering various international affairs and conditions," Kim added.
President Trump did not demand, but suggested that Korea join the policy, the aide said. He said the issue was not something that South Korea could say it would immediately accept.
However, the foreign ministry presented a different view about the country's stance.
Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said in an afternoon briefing that day, "The strategy that the U.S. suggested is in line with South Korea's policy to a certain extent, and therefore the two nations could seek ways to cooperate in the new initiative."
Asked of the ministry's different view from the presidential office, Noh answered that what he said was basically the government's stance.
Amid the mounting controversy over the divided opinions between the presidential office and the foreign ministry, Cheong Wa Dae gave its stance again, which reflected some aspect of the ministry's opinion this time.
The presidential office said that Korea and U.S. has shared such values as freedom and democracy while continuing to cooperate closely in achieving the goal of securing security, stability, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula as well as Northeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.
"The free and open Indo-Pacific concept, which the U.S. is recently suggesting, is in line with our effort to diversify diplomatic ground to some degree, but we concluded that more discussion is required about whether the concept is appropriate in carrying out our joint strategic goal," Cheong Wa Dae said in a press release.
"That's why we wrote in the joint statement that Trump stressed the initiative, not that the two leaders agreed on it."
The two countries will closely work together and seek possible ways to cooperate in the new plan from now on, it added.
As he travels across Asia, President Trump has pushed his new free and open Indo-Pacific policy, which replaces the existing Asia-Pacific one. The term has been mentioned in White House speeches and Cabinet meetings over the past few weeks.