Demonstrating the capacity to surprise, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un acted like a modern statesman when he ventured into the Republic of Korea for his summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. That doesn’t mean Kim and his heavily armed nation are not potentially dangerous. But after watching Kim in action, as Margaret Thatcher said of Mikhail Gorbachev, “we can do business together.”
Reasons for caution are many. After all, Kim’s father had summits with two successive South Korean presidents, but by earlier this year people were talking about the possibility of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea. However, despite the danger of excessive expectations, the diplomatic option first advanced by Kim has shifted the peninsula away from military conflict, at least in the short-term.
Which is a major benefit. As I point out in a new study for Cato, war simply is not an option. It wouldn’t be “over there,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) infamously assured us. Americans would be directly involved, even if the North was not capable of striking the U.S. homeland. In any case, if war resulted, the likely death and destruction on the peninsula, with South Korea a major part of the battlefield, and likely beyond, including Japan, would be far too great to justify the risk.
As a result, President Donald Trump should have modest expectations when meeting Kim. The president’s goal should be to set in motion negotiations and actions that will reduce the likelihood of conflict and hopefully, ultimately, lead to full denuclearization.
One of the most important offers he could make to advance the negotiations is to bring home U.S. troops from the peninsula. Although the American presence is viewed as near sacrosanct by many analysts, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that withdrawal is one “of the issues we’ll be discuss in in the negotiations with our allies first and, of course, with North Korea.” He rejected having “preconditions or presumptions about how it’s going to go.” In fact, the ROK’s rapid economic growth and democratic evolution long ago made Washington’s conventional security guarantee obsolete.
But even something short of denuclearization could promote stability and peace on the peninsula and throughout the region. Which would be an accomplishment President Trump could rightly celebrate.
The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development has been almost exclusively an emphasis on military confrontation. The latest eruption of escalatory actions and rhetoric is in keeping with the norm.
Following Pyongyang’s successful testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, Trump referenced “some pretty severe things that we are thinking about” in response. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korean, warned ominously that "it would be a grave mistake for anyone” to doubt our willingness to use military force in response to North Korean “provocation.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that we will use “our considerable military forces…if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.” Finally, U.S. and South Korean forces “fired a barrage of guided-missiles into the ocean” off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, as a show of force.
Many Americans believe the hardline approach to North Korea is wise because peaceful negotiations, in Eli Lake’s words, have been used by Pyongyang “to buy time and extract concessions from the West.” Diplomacy doesn’t work on the intransigent North Korea, we’re told.
But that conflicts with the historical record. According to Stanford University’s Siegfried S. Hecker, the record from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations shows that “Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons” but “only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.”
This is a crucial point. For decades, Washington’s general approach has involved economic sanctions, military encirclement, and regular threats of preventive war. In this environment, and without good faith overtures from Washington, North Korea is going to continue to insist on having the ability to deter invasion or attack by the United States or its allies.
We came close to real progress in the 1990s. The imperfect “Agreed Framework,” struck by Pyongyang and the Clinton administration, froze Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear program and opened it up to inspections in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington. It held promise of sustainable de-escalation.
But problems arose. In Hecker’s retelling, the agreement:
was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning. The LWR [light-water reactor] project also fell behind schedule because the legal arrangements were much more complex than anticipated. The Agreed Framework, which began as a process of interaction and cooperation, quickly turned into accusations of non-compliance by both parties.
Nevertheless, the Agreed Framework continued to be the basis for constructive diplomacy. According to Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the University of South California’s U.S.-China Institute, “Despite North Korean frustration at U.S. delays in providing much of the promised assistance, the political thaw reached a high point in 2000” when the two countries issued a joint communique “pledging that neither would have ‘hostile intent’ towards the other.” Chinoy continues:
Then Bush took office. After a review of Korea policy, Bush declined to reaffirm the communique pledging “no hostile intent.” Meanwhile, leading conservatives in his administration — Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and others — actively sought to torpedo the Agreed Framework. The president labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. In mid-2002, a U.S. intelligence determination that North Korea had taken initial steps to acquire the capability to make a uranium bomb was used by the conservatives as an excuse for Washington to pull out of the 1994 framework deal.
In the following months, Kim watched as U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein while the Bush administration, in the name of the “war on terror,” expounded a doctrine of regime change for rogue states. Rumsfeld formally proposed making regime change in Pyongyang official U.S. policy, while Bolton warned Kim to “draw the appropriate lesson” from Iraq.
With the Bush administration’s abrogation of the Agreed Framework, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked out inspectors, and became determined to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons in order to avoid the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and later Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi.
Would Pyongyang have permitted improved relations with the U.S. and South Korea and forfeited its nuclear ambitions under sustained diplomacy? It’s hard to say. The Bush administration suspected early on that North Korea was exploring uranium enrichment, which would have violated the spirit but not the letter of the Agreed Framework. But the fundamental issue is that North Korea’s perception of its threat environment is existential. They believe – not without reason – that the survival of the regime is at risk unless they possess a credible nuclear deterrent.
Given the progress they have now made, de-nuclearization is no longer really in the cards. Nor is there a viable military option (even a minor surgical strike is expected to unleash a massive war involving potentially a million deaths, and that’s if it doesn’t go nuclear). The United States must simply learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. Diplomatic efforts should focus on de-escalation measures, as recently suggested by Russia and China, and freezing Pyongyang’s weapons development where it is, in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions from the U.S.
But before any of that, we need to get beyond this myth that diplomacy isn’t an option.
The Obama administration is debating a declaration of no first use of nuclear weapons. Some Asia specialists fear the resulting impact on North Korea. But dealing with Pyongyang is a reason for Washington to encourage its ally South Korea to go nuclear.
Washington has possessed nuclear weapons for more than 70 years. No one doubts that the United States would use nukes in its own defense.
However, since then, Washington has extended a so-called “nuclear umbrella” over many of its non-nuclear allies. For instance, the United States long has threatened to use nuclear weapons in its NATO allies’ defense, though the precise circumstances under which the United States would act were not clear.
Northeast Asia is the region where nuclear threats seem greatest. Japan and South Korea are thought to be snuggled beneath America’s nuclear umbrella, which has discouraged both from acquiring their own weapons.
The “umbrella” obviously is defensive, that is, to protect American allies against the first use of nukes. However, Washington also could—and, it appears, would, if necessary, whatever that might mean—use nuclear weapons first to stop a conventional attack. Russia and China aren’t likely to attack the Republic of Korea or Japan. More plausible is a North Korean invasion of the ROK.
Extended nuclear deterrence always has been risky for the United States. It means being willing to fight a nuclear war on behalf of others. Americans would risk Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles to, say, defend Berlin and Tokyo.
At least bilateral deterrence among great powers tends to be reasonably stable. Dealing with North Korea is potentially more dangerous.
Yet the DPRK eventually may gain the ability to strike the U.S. by developing long-range missiles as well as nuclear weapons. The North isn’t likely to attack first, but it still could lay waste to a major American city--which would be a bad deal indeed.
Yet advocates of extended deterrence are criticizing proposals for an American pledge of no first use of nuclear weapons.
The problem is fundamental: It is one thing for Washington to use nuclear weapons, including preemptively, to protect America. It is quite different to do so for allies.
As I point out in National Interest: “Alliances are a means, not an end, that is, a mechanism to help defend the U.S. A North Korean attack on the ROK would be awful, a humanitarian tragedy. But American security would not be directly threatened. Certainly there is no threat warranting the risk of nuclear retaliation on the U.S.”
Of course, those being defended have configured their security policy and force structure in response. But future policy should not be held captive to the past.
Washington’s chief responsibility should be America’s security. Backers of the status quo act like there is no alternative to leaving the ROK (and Japan, which faces a real, though less direct, threat from the DPRK) vulnerable to attack.
However, Seoul is well able to deter and defeat the North. The ROK possesses around 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea, as well as a vast technological lead and an extensive international support network. Japan, which long possessed the world’s second largest economy, also could do far more.
The South is capable of developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, polls show public support for such an option today. Opposition to nuclear weapons is stronger in Japan, but an ROK weapon would put enormous pressure on Tokyo to conform.
Obviously, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose proliferation, even among friends. However, the current system is entangling Washington in the middle of other nations’ potential conflicts. The result is to make America less secure.
Dealing with nuclear weapons is never easy. Washington’s best alternative may be to withdraw from Northeast Asia’s nuclear imbroglio. Then America’s allies could engage in containment and deterrence, just as America did for them for so many years.
Washington long has told the rest of the world what to do. But the world usually pays little attention. When ignored, U.S. officials typically talk tougher and louder, with no better result.
That describes American policy toward North Korea. It would be better for Washington to say less than frantically denounce every provocation. The U.S. and its allies typically respond with angry complaints and empty threats, which only encourages the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to provoke again.
North Korea recently launched two missiles. It was more of the same, barely worth a second thought.
However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that he was “deeply troubled” by the North’s action. The United Nations Security Council met, at which there were “strong condemnations across the board,” according to U.S. ambassador Samantha Power. Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross said Pyongyang should “focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its commitments and international obligations.”
Japan’s UN representative, Koro Bessho, called the North’s actions “totally unacceptable.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe termed the test “is an unforgivable act of violence toward Japan’s security.”
South Korea’s UN representative, Oh Joon, denounced Pyongyang, contending that the latter’s missile program “poses a clear and present danger to the security of all countries in the region.” The South Korean military warned that the North “directly and blatantly demonstrated its provocative ambition to target seaports and airfields across South Korea.”
Even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg joined the chorus, taking the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization way out of area. He declared that North Korea should “immediately cease and abandon all its existing nuclear and ballistic missile activities” and “refrain from any further provocative actions.”
Imagine, Stoltenberg thought his words would shame into repentance the North’s communist emperor Kim Jong-un. North Koreans seem far more likely to enjoy than regret Japanese ululations over the horrid threat posed by Tokyo’s former colony.
Just what do the allies believe they are achieving? Over the last five years the DPRK has shot off 31 missiles. Every one violated a Security Council resolution. And every one was denounced in equally florid language.
Without the slightest impact on the North’s behavior.
Western whining plays to Kim’s worst instincts. After all, the DPRK ably fills the role of a “shrimp among whales,” far smaller, poorer, and less powerful than South Korea, let alone Japan, China, and Russia. Yet the Kim dynasty has gained the world’s attention, causing wailing and gnashing of teeth in capitals across the world—and now even in the headquarters of NATO, the world’s greatest military alliance.
From the regime’s standpoint, it obviously is doing something right. In fact, observers predict that the North is preparing a fifth nuclear test. Last month Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho criticized the U.S. for its “never ending nuclear blackmails.” As a result, America “will have to pay dearly a terrifying price.”
Washington cannot count on the PRC to “solve” the North Korea problem. After the latest DPRK provocations, Beijing’s ambassador to the UN, Liu Jieyi, chose not to focus on the North, but instead said “the situation is tense and we need to do everything to de-escalate the situation.” He implied that the U.S. and its allies had provoked the North to arm, noting that “the factors contributing to the tension in the Korean peninsula” are “self-evident.”
As I note in the National Interest: “No one outside of Pyongyang wants the DPRK to develop missiles or nuclear weapons. However, if the allies lack a means to disarm the North, they should stop complaining after every weapons test. Doing so reinforces North Korea’s inflated sense of importance and perception of allied weakness.”
Better would be to greet such tests with silence. Any policy response, such as tightened sanctions, should be adopted with little rhetorical fanfare.
This wouldn’t make the North Korea problem go away. But it might at least stop encouraging the DPRK to do more. The U.S. and its allies should give the North the attention that it truly deserves.
Despite the success of America’s post-World War II policy, its advocates act as if it is an abysmal failure. No matter that the ROK took advantage of Washington’s defense shield to develop into one of the world’s most important, largest, and advanced economies. The U.S. must continue to protect the South from the latter’s decrepit northern neighbor.
For instance, analyst Khang Vu offers no argument that South Korea is vital for America. He refers to another Korean war posing “an adverse prospect for future U.S. administrations.”
Which is about right. It would be a human tragedy and source of instability, but it wouldn’t matter much for American security. The next step would not be conquest of the West Coast (despite the hysterical plot of the movie reboot Red Dawn).
But why would the South lose? After all, the South possesses an economy around 40 times as large and population about twice as large, and has neutralized North Korea’s two traditional military allies, China and Russia. Seoul could easily match, indeed overmatch, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Yet there is fear of a power vacuum, in the belief that the South would not bother to build up its own forces. America therefore must spend more, deploy more troops, and repeatedly “reassure” its helpless allies.
Ohm Tae-am of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses recently defended the ROK’s inadequate spending as having increased six times since 1991. But the South was starting with a very low base. Seoul is far richer than the DPRK, and therefore has no excuse for claiming it cannot defend itself.
Still, maybe the ROK would not expand its forces while the U.S. was withdrawing its units. Probably not, but even that would be Seoul’s decision. It makes no sense to force the American people to defend the South Korean people if the latter aren’t willing to defend themselves.
However, Vu warns that the South might irresponsibly respond “militarily to avoid losing face” to a DPRK provocation. Thus, American troops must remain on station to prevent Seoul from doing something stupid. If Seoul is truly that irresponsible, Washington should disengage immediately.
Of course, Vu says, don’t worry, “the presence of American troops has effectively thwarted North Korean attacks in the first place.” However, deterrence frequently fails.
Moreover, the chief danger on the Korean peninsula is not aggression but mistake. It is impossible to deter misjudgment. If something goes wrong, the U.S. will find itself automatically involved in someone else’s war.
Vu also makes the curious claim that defending the world costs America nothing because Seoul helps pay basing costs. However, foreign policy drives force structure. If Washington did not promise to defend the South, and a multitude of other states, it could shrink the armed forces. So the cost of protecting the ROK is not just the expense of basing units overseas, but of creating them in the first place.
Finally, critics dismiss the likelihood that U.S. disengagement would advance negotiation. In fact, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang would yield its existing nuclear arsenal under any circumstances, but there are other potentially useful deals that could be struck, including limiting future nuclear developments and reducing conventional force deployments.
Of course, positive results remain unlikely. But just doing what we’ve been doing isn’t likely to get better results in the future.
Ultimately, North Korea threatens America only because America threatens North Korea. If U.S. troops weren’t stationed on the peninsula, Kim would find other targets for his abundant venom and threats.
America remains in Korea out of habit. Which has helped turn the Pentagon into a vast fount of international charity.
As I point out in National Interest: “South Korea is one of America’s many foreign welfare dependents. The U.S. military is overstretched. The U.S. government is effectively broke. The American people are overwhelmed with debt.”
It’s time for Washington to pare back unnecessary security commitments. Allowing the ROK to defend itself would be a good place to start.
Four decades ago South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, launched a quest for nuclear weapons. Washington, the South’s military protector, applied substantial pressure to kill the program.
Today it looks like Park might have been right.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues its relentless quest for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The South is attempting to find an effective response.
Although the DPRK is unlikely to attack since it would lose a full-scale war, the Republic of Korea remains uncomfortably dependent on America. And Washington’s commitment to the populous and prosperous ROK likely will decline as America’s finances worsen and challenges elsewhere multiply.
In response, there is talk of reviving the South’s nuclear option. Won Yoo-cheol, parliamentary floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, told the National Assembly: “We cannot borrow an umbrella from a neighbor every time it rains. We need to have a raincoat and wear it ourselves.”
Chung Moon-jong—member of the National Assembly, presidential candidate, and Asan Institute founder—made a similar plea two years ago. He told an American audience “if North Korea keeps insisting on staying nuclear then it must know that we will have no choice but to go nuclear.” He suggested that the South withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and “match North Korea’s nuclear progress step-by step while committing to stop if North Korea stops.”
The public seems receptive. Support for a South Korean nuclear program is on the upswing, hitting 66 percent in 2013. While President Park Geun-hye’s government remains formally committed to the NPT, Seoul has conducted nuclear experiments and resisted oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Of course, the idea triggers a horrified reaction in Washington.
Unfortunately, in Northeast Asia today nonproliferation operates a little like gun control in the U.S.: only the bad guys end up armed. China, Russia, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons. America’s allies, Japan and South Korea, do not, and expect Washington to defend them. To do so the U.S. would have to risk Los Angeles to protect Seoul and Tokyo—and maybe Taipei and Canberra as well, depending on how far Washington extends the “nuclear umbrella.”
While America’s overwhelming nuclear arsenal should deter anyone else from using nukes, conflicts do not always evolve rationally. South Korea and Japan are important international partners, but their protection is not worth creating an unnecessary existential threat to the American homeland.
Better to create a balance of power in which the U.S. is not a target if nukes start falling. And that would be achieved by independent South Korean and Japanese nuclear deterrents. Such a prospect would antagonize China. But then, such an arsenal would deter the People’s Republic of China as well as DPRK. Which also would serve American interests.
Moreover, the mere threat might solve the problem. When faced with the prospect of Japanese and South Korean nuclear weapons, China might come to see the wisdom of applying greater pressure on the North.
The U.S.-ROK discussions over THAAD may have encouraged Beijing to indicate its willingness support a UN resolution imposing more pain on the North for its latest nuclear launch. The prospect of having two more nuclear neighbors would concentrate minds in Zhongnanhai.
Abandoning nonproliferation is not a decision to take lightly. No one wants a nuclear arms race.
But the PRC already is improving its nuclear forces. And allowing North Korea to enjoy a unilateral advantage creates great dangers.
So as I wrote for National Interest: “policymakers should consider the possibility of a nuclear South Korea. Keeping America entangled in the Korean imbroglio as Pyongyang develops nuclear weapons is a bad option which could turn catastrophic. Blessing allied development of nuclear weapons might prove to be a better alternative.”
Park Chung-hee was a brute, but his desire for an ROK nuclear weapon looks prescient. Maybe it’s time for the good guys in Northeast Asia to be armed as well.
History weighs heavily on East Asia. To Washington’s enduring frustration, its two most important democratic allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea, have been at odds for decades.
The divergence between the two grew especially sharp over the last couple of years, during which ties between Seoul and the People’s Republic of China notably warmed while those between Japan and the PRC sharply deteriorated, driven by the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Moreover, South Korea had its own contentious territorial contretemps with Tokyo.
Both parties deserved blame. The South was determined to hang onto emotional grievances—serious and real, but long past. Japan insisted on justifying indefensible actions whose perpetrators were long dead. Destructive domestic politics ruled.
At the end of December, however, the two countries tried to put the issue of the “comfort women” behind them. Beginning in 1931, with Japanese military operations in China, Tokyo created brothels for its soldiers. For years Japanese officials insisted that the women were prostitute voluntarily engaged, despite evident coercion.
Now Japan has apologized and agreed to create a compensation fund. In return, the ROK promised to drop the matter and “address” the issue of the private statue of a young girl, representing the comfort women, facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
It’s an important step forward, but does not yet close the issue. Both leaders have been called “traitors” by domestic critics. South Koreans have protested and termed the accord “humiliating.”
Unsurprisingly, the PRC denounced the agreement. Beijing cited the plight of Chinese comfort women. Japan must “face up to its history and take concrete actions to win the trust of its Asian neighbors and the international community,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
Of course, that is precisely what Tokyo has been doing. It previously moved ahead with relations with India. Manilla has publicly urged Japan to do more to promote regional security. Tensions never have been as great with Taiwan and Australia.
Most interesting are the implications for the Japan-Korea-China triangle. An unnamed State Department official called the agreement “strategically consequential.”
While Tokyo and the ROK have been at odds, Beijing and Seoul have ostentatiously embraced, with President Park meeting PRC President Xi-Jinping several times. This has simultaneously hindered U.S. efforts to isolate and contain China and added pressure on North Korea to moderate its behavior.
The PRC’s warm feelings toward South Korea may ebb a bit as a result of the pact, but Beijing cannot easily criticize another government—the sort of interference with internal affairs which it routinely decries when directed in its direction. Moreover, the bilateral economic ties are too important great for the two nations to drift apart.
While the pact opens the way for expanded military cooperation between the ROK and Seoul, President Park is unpopular and nearing the end of her term. More important, the two nations face very different security situations.
In contrast to Japan, the South fears North Korea more than the PRC. The historical and territorial disputes between Beijing and South Korea are very unlikely to lead to war.
Thus, irrespective of Washington’s wishes, it makes sense for Seoul to continue to prioritize its relationship with China over that with Tokyo. In contrast, Japan has little desire to get sucked into a land war on the Korean peninsula, while worrying mightily about Beijing’s naval advances.
Only if the ROK appears to actively join America in seeking to contain the PRC might Chinese-South Korean relations suffer. And Seoul is unlikely to make that mistake. The giant next door will always be there. The U.S. will remain the world’s leading power for years, but no longer can afford to police the globe.
As I point out in National Interest: “The South Korean-Japanese settlement is a positive step. But while it will ease tensions between America’s two top allies, it isn’t likely to turn their relationship into a new anti-China axis. Washington’s job in East Asia has gotten easier, but only somewhat.”