At the end of their meeting in Singapore, President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un signed a document in which Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK,” while Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In principle this is a reasonable formula which has the potential to remove Korea from the list of global neuralgic points. It is an even bet, however, that this will not happen for years to come.
In the aftermath of the meeting Trump sounded enthusisatic. “We’re very proud of what took place today,” he said. “I think our whole relationship with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is going to be a very much different situation than it has in the past.” The Korean conflict “will soon end,” he went on, and “adversaries can indeed become friends!” He called the 393-word agreement “very comprehensive” (which it assuredly is not), saying the two sides would hold follow-up negotiations and cooperate to develop bilateral relations. Asked about North Korea’s denuclearization, the President was emphatic: “We’re starting that process very quickly—very, very quickly.” He said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security advisor John Bolton and other members of the U.S. team would be “getting together” with North Korean officials next week to work out details of the agreement and “get the ball over the goal line.”
Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would be suspending the war games it conducts regularly with South Korea was a tangible, upfront concession to the North. Remarkably, the President conceded that conducting such exercises was “very provocative”—as Pyongyang has claimed for years—and even took a sideswipe at Seoul’s allegedly insufficient contribution to their cost. The announcement apparently came as a surprise to South Korea: the Trump administration had previously refused to put the joint exercises on the table. The president also said he would eventually like to see the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula, but added that the U.S. would not be reducing its military capabilities for the time being.
On balance, the summit in Singapore was significant but by no means “historic”—not on par with Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, say, or even Reagan’s 1986 Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev. After all, any recent American president who had wanted to meet with Kim or his father before him could have done so: to the regime in Pyongyang has long craved the legitimacy implied in the appearance of the two sides’ nominal equality. As for the Trump-Kim “agreement,” it is no more than a rather vague statement of intent. The devil will be in the detail, as always:
- What is the guarantee of the validity of the U.S. “security guarantees”? A precedent of sorts exists in Kennedy’s pledge to Khrushchev—at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis—that the U.S. “will respect the inviolability of Cuban borders, its sovereignty, [and] take the pledge not to interfere in its internal affairs.” Since North Korea is not a superpower as the USSR had been, it would be reasonable for Kim to try and turn any bilateral agreement with the U.S. into a multilateral one, which would include China and Russia as guarantors.
- Will Kim’s pledge “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” morph into yet another demand for the concurrent withdrawal of close to 30,000 U.S. forces and the lifting of the American regional nuclear umbrella? If so, it would be déjà vu all over again. Over a decade ago Kim’s father offered to give up his nuclear weapons program in return for American written security guarantees, an economic aid package, and a pledge to withdraw U.S. forces.
- “Working toward” something is not the same as doing that thing, and Kim did not explicitly agree to nuclear disarmament. If he is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons, what are the timetables and verification measures?
“All I can say is they want to make a deal,” Trump said in response to a question about Kim’s seriousness. That deal probably would entail a staged disarmament with parallel reduction of U.S. military presence in South Korea and the lifting of sanctions. Nobody is saying so aloud, but this sort of package would be potentially pleasing to Japan, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries (primarily Vietnam), if the reduction of U.S. military forces south of the 38th parallel leads to a reordering of American priorities and resources to focus on China’s increasingly audacious power projection in the South China Sea.
By including North Korea in the “axis of evil” State of the Union address in January 2002, President George W. Bush prodded Pyongyang into accelerating its nuclear program. From the standpoint of American security interests, this mistake now needs to be rectified. Like his father before him, Kim Jong-un is by all accounts a “rational” player. He presides over a grim, unfree country, but he is not seeking to reunify the peninsula by force. If the goal of the United States is to ensure that he gives up the nukes, and the main objective of Kim is to ensure the safety of his personal regime, the gap can be bridged.
A clear U.S. undertaking is needed, probably underwritten by Peking and Moscow, that if Kim disarms, and accepts international supervision of the process, he may stay in power. The people of North Korea will continue to languish under one of the most oppressive governments in the world, which is regrettable but irrelevant to the U.S. security calculus. Since Washington is not contemplating a second Korean war simply for the sake of liberating Kim’s long-suffering subjects, a serious security pledge from Trump—countersigned by two other powers with interests in the region—would cost the U.S. literally nothing.
The notion of complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula in return for Kim’s complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament sounds positively alluring. Old habits may die hard, but the 60-year habit of garrisoning South Korea is neither sentimentally nor strategically addictive. It has to be kicked because it is expensive and unnecessary. The U.S. military intervention in Korea in the summer of 1950 was necessary and just. Regardless of the fiction of “U.N. forces” of Cold War communiqués, the war was an American affair, overwhelmingly fought by American soldiers in the American interest. For a generation after the war it was necessary to maintain U.S. forces in South Korea, a weak and initially devastated country ruled by unpopular regimes and ridden by internal dissent. Neither Mao nor Brezhnev could be trusted to keep Kim Il-sung in check.
Over the past three decades, however, the equation has changed on all fronts. South Korea has become one of the most successful economies in the world, and the third largest Asian “tiger.” It is currently ranking No. 11 globally, a capitalist success story of the first order that out-produces Russia and has the financial and scientific potential to become a regional military power par excellence. In the meantime, North Korea’s peculiar blend of Oriental despotism and Stalinism has reached a dead end. Russia has become more interested in the economic benefits of trading with the South than in the outdated legacy of past links with the North. China would like Kim’s regime to survive as a buffer between the 38th parallel and the Yalu, but not as a nuclear power.
Eventually removing the American security umbrella from South Korea would be beneficial to both sides. The United States would be disengaged from a part of the world where the dangers of continued military presence exceed any possible benefits. “Without any connection to the Cold War,” Doug Bandow wrote a decade and a half ago, “and absent a global hegemonic struggle, Korea is relatively unimportant to the United States from a military and strategic standpoint . . . The relationship between the two countries will never be one of equals so long as South Korea is dependent on Washington for its defense.”
The assessment still stands. As South Korea has repeatedly acknowledged in its own defense reports, for years the government in Seoul chose to focus on economic development at the expense of military strength. It could afford to do so, secure in the knowledge that it enjoyed protection by the United States. This is ridiculous. As I wrote here a year ago, American withdrawal would prompt South Korea finally to become a mature, self-reliant regional power fully responsible for its self-protection, as befits one of the most highly developed industrial economies in the world. Only by removing the tripwire can America finally force South Korea to upgrade its military and to make its people assume the full economic and political burden of defending their own country.
If this worthy objective is presented to Kim Jong-un as a major U.S. concession worthy of complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament, the meeting in Singapore will have made a lot of sense. And Donald John Trump will become a far worthier recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize than his predecessor.