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President Donald Trump’s most promising foreign policy initiative, engaging North Korea, has stalled. Expecting the North’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons, and do so quickly, never was realistic. Failing to propose smaller deals, mixing specific nuclear limits with sanctions relief, lost the opportunity to test Kim’s willingness to moderate his regime’s ambitions.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has developed nuclear weapons for several reasons, including to win international status, plot neighborly extortion, and reward military elites. However, the most important is to establish military deterrence.
In 1950 the DPRK’s Kim Il Sung came close to forcibly reuniting the peninsula. Since then the North’s security position has steadily deteriorated. Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing and Moscow, its two major allies, were often fractious and dramatically worsened after the Cold War ended.
South Korea advanced economically, democratically, and diplomatically. The U.S. expanded its military capabilities as it maintained its alliance with Seoul. Washington also engaged in regime change around the globe while targeting North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil.”
As Henry Kissinger once observed, even paranoiacs have enemies. Whatever its ill designs, any regime in such a strategic position would view itself as vulnerable. Although the unfortunate location of Seoul some 30 miles from the DMZ gives the North a conventional deterrent, counter-measures are possible.
Moreover, the potential destruction of the Republic of Korea’s capital might not weigh so heavily in Washington. Consider Sen. Lindsey Graham’s light-hearted dismissal of the threat of a Second Korean war as being “over there” rather than “over here.”
Pyongyang’s acquisition of the ultimate deterrent would make an allied attack far less likely. Possession of a nuclear arsenal also would strengthen the DPRK’s position vis-à-vis Russia and the People’s Republic of China. The North has always balanced its friends as well as enemies. Nukes ensure its strategic independence.
Convincing the Kims to yield their nuclear program seemed an especially forlorn hope once Washington began taking advantage of its “unipolar moment” to target members of the Axis of Evil and others: Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Serbia, Iraq (twice!), Afghanistan, Yemen, and most dramatically Libya. In the latter case the U.S. and Europe convinced Muammar Gaddafi abandon his missile and nuclear programs in return for good relations.
For a time he enjoyed the West’s favor, even hosting U.S. Senators Graham, John McCain, and Joseph Lieberman for a friendly visit in which they discussed the possibility of rewarding Tripoli for its counter-terrorism cooperation. However, the moment he was vulnerable the colonel’s sunshine friends took advantage of the opportunity to oust him.
He eventually was captured, brutalized, and killed by Libyan insurgents. Among the biggest American cheerleaders for war were Graham and McCain.
Hence the North’s sensitivity to the “Libya model” which former National Security Adviser John Bolton talked about. Friendly gestures are not enough to convince Pyongyang’s leaders of Washington’s benign intentions.
Oral promises and paper guarantees would offer Kim Jong Un no protection once he gave up his nukes. Nor is Trump trustworthy: the latter tossed out the nuclear accord with Iran and essentially demanded that Tehran surrender its independent foreign policy.
What possible inducement would reduce the military threat faced by the DPRK? Perhaps the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula.
The 28,500 Americans currently stationed there alone don’t much threaten the North, but they symbolize Washington’s much larger commitment and set a military tripwire for U.S. involvement.
Ending America’s presence on the peninsula, especially if backed by dropping or downgrading the alliance, would be the most effective way to communicate that Washington was disengaging militarily and unlikely to threaten North Korea.
Kim still might dismiss such a shift, since the Pentagon has global reach as well as substantial military assets stationed elsewhere in the region, enabling Washington to act even without garrisoning the South. Or Kim might believe that the other benefits of possessing nukes outweigh the value of withdrawal.
If accepted, such a deal would be good for America
On the other hand, he could choose to rely on budgetary and populist pressures to encourage Trump and his successors to put the U.S. garrison on the chopping block without negotiation. Or Kim might decide that Washington’s presence acts as a useful counterweight to both China and Russia.
Nevertheless, Trump’s blustering threats offered Kim an unpleasant reminder of the danger U.S. forces pose to his continued rule. A pull-out would be a dramatic change in U.S. policy; once concluded, Washington would be less likely to return and intervene. Thus, the offer should be made in hopes of advancing the otherwise lost cause of denuclearization.
If accepted, such a deal would be good for America. The alliance has become an article of faith among Korea-hands, yet its benefits for the U.S. are more assumed than proved. The ROK likes being defended but is well able to protect itself from any conventional threat. Already Seoul has qualitatively superior armed forces. With 53 times the North’s economy and twice the North’s population, South Korea could augment its military as necessary. The latter’s defense does not require American support.
Moreover, withdrawing troops would be a small price to pay for eliminating Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. Although the ruling Kims seem eminently rational, the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons capable of targeting America would create additional risks and make the existing alliance untenable.
Extended nuclear deterrence on the Korean peninsula works only if other parties believe that U.S. policymakers are willing to risk Los Angeles for Seoul. Since the ROK’s defense no longer is connected to a global existential military threat, what interest is significant enough to warrant offering a nuclear backstop to the South?
Opening the homeland to nuclear attack would risk truly catastrophic consequences. In contrast, absent U.S. involvement, war on the peninsula, though a humanitarian tragedy and regional disaster, would leave America essentially unmolested.
Against a nuclear-armed North even what began as a conventional conflict would inevitably threaten to escalate. In 1950 Chinese intervention saved the North. That wouldn’t happen again. Pyongyang would face inevitable defeat if war erupted. In which case, Kim would have every incentive to threaten to use his nukes if the U.S. and ROK forces prepared to overrun the DPRK.
With Gaddafi’s fate in mind Kim would have little reason not to unleash hell if the allies moved north. Would any American president risk the destruction of U.S. cities to complete the conquest of North Korea?
Although the Trump administration has not put America’s military presence on the table, Donald Trump is the one president who might do so. After the 2018 Singapore summit with Kim, he proclaimed: “I want to bring our soldiers back home.”
That also would be a logical response to Seoul’s refusal to substantially increase its support for U.S. troops. Host nation support typically is based on deployment costs, but the largest expense for America is increasing force structure. The more the Pentagon wants to do, the more it needs to spend.
The mere possibility of a U.S. withdrawal has triggered horror among some members of “The Blob,” or Washington foreign policy community, concerned with Korea. It is a curious reaction.
For more than two decades presidents insisted that the North cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. That time has been filled with diplomatic initiatives, UN resolutions, economic sanctions, pressure on China, military threats, episodic negotiations, squabbles with South Korea, and more.
The core assumption was that Washington could not, under any circumstances, ever contemplate for a moment accepting Pyongyang as even a limited nuclear power. Accommodating a nuclear North Korea, as the U.S. had reluctantly done in the cases of China, the Soviet Union, Israel, India, and Pakistan, was simply inconceivable.
Indeed, at least two presidents apparently seriously considered war. The Clinton administration planned military action against the DPRK’s nuclear facilities, though there is disagreement over how close it came to acting. President Trump recently said that he seriously considered the possibility as well. And plenty of ivory tower warriors have proposed everything from limited strikes to preventative war.
Dropping an obsolescent commitment is not “abandonment,” as some claim
Yet some observers now argue that it is better for the U.S. to remain entangled in Korean affairs and face the possibility, however remote, of nuclear war with North Korea, than to turn the ROK’s defense over to Seoul. One concern is the symbolism of an American departure, but deployments are not meant to become permanent, outliving their geopolitical usefulness.
Robert E. Kelly of Pusan National University worried more about the tangible, arguing that “surrendering actual physical U.S. assets in this region—soldiers, hardware, bases—is even worse than giving cash and is also worse than adapting to North Korean nuclear weapons.”
Geopolitical circumstances don’t even seem to come into it. In a recent interview the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, declared that “There is no contemplation of U.S. forces leaving the Korean Peninsula … as an outcome of relationships with North Korea.” American units are to stay in Korea apparently till the end of time, even if the North Korean lion lies down with the South Korean lamb.
Whatever would justify accepting the risk of nuclear conflict and loss of one or more cities?
Dropping an obsolescent commitment is not “abandonment,” as some claim. As noted earlier, the ROK is not vital for America’s survival. Moreover, Seoul is capable of deterring a North Korean attack—which would be far less likely if Pyongyang abandoned nuclear weapons. The primary benefit of the U.S. garrison is discouraging DPRK military action, but stripping away the North’s most important military advantage would be even more effective in doing so.
There is also Japan, but its defense needs are separate from those of the ROK. And Tokyo would be almost as great a beneficiary of keeping the Korean peninsula nuke-free as would South Korea. Japan, which already possesses a capable military, also could do much more to defend itself and its region. Current U.S. security policies encourage allies to remain dependent on Washington.
The most important issue undoubtedly is China. Harris carefully talked of the Korean presence being “a part of a bigger geostrategic strategy,” but generic claims of ensuring “regional stability” are meaningless boilerplate. The only serious contingency with meaningful consequences for America involves the PRC.
Kelly is more explicit, complaining that “China would also benefit from a U.S. retrenchment from the region.” Yet the American presence in Korea, most notably an army division, does little to limit the PRC.
More important, no South Korean government is going to join a containment network directed against China. Absent an attack on the South, which is highly unlikely, Seoul will not turn its territory into a battleground and become a permanent enemy of the rising power next door at America’s request.
American units are to stay in Korea apparently till the end of time, even if the North Korean lion lies down with the South Korean lamb
True, once forces were withdrawn, it would not be easy to replicate a military presence built up over many years should desires change. But U.S. alliances and deployments are means to an end, not ends in themselves. In this case they address the threat from North Korea, which would dramatically diminish absent Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons.
Most important, negotiating away the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal would eliminate the only serious threat to America posed by the North. The ROK is a long-time friend, but does not require defending, and even if it did it is not worth incurring the risk of nuclear war. The U.S. has far more to fear from the potential destruction of its cities resulting from a disastrous confrontation in Northeast Asia.
If the Trump-Kim negotiations collapse, North Koreans might return to a policy of escalating provocations and the Trump administration might respond with “fire and fury.” Then a simple mistake or misperception could lead to war.
The Trump administration should do everything possible, including offering to bring America’s troops home where they belong, to maintain peace into the future.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.President Donald Trump’s most promising foreign policy initiative, engaging North Korea, has stalled. Expecting the North’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons, and do so quickly, never was realistic. Failing to propose smaller deals, mixing specific
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of "Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World" and co-author of "The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea."