America Should Not Play Smallball at the Singapore Summit

May 29, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: NuclearWarKim Jong UnDonald TrumpSummitMAGA

America Should Not Play Smallball at the Singapore Summit

There has to be a fat and juicy carrot for Pyongyang in any future negotiation in place of vague security assurances or nebulous promises of “prosperity.”

It is indeed true that today’s PLA is nothing like the ragged force of Chinese volunteers who entered Korea in the fall of 1950 without even proper footwear, not to mention effective weaponry, ammunition, etc. A fight today on the Korean Peninsula involving this impressively improved PLA is hardly a welcome possibility and presents yet another reason to hope that direct negotiations may actually take place between the United States and North Korea at Singapore in the coming weeks. With that ambition in mind, let us return to the issue we started with at the outset, whether indeed the U.S. troop presence in South Korea could add seriousness to prospective U.S.-DPRK talks on denuclearization. Some benefits for training, quality of life and survivability were elaborated above. We should also not forget resources obviously. True, South Korea does pay a portion of the costs of U.S. forces in Korea, but it is far from the total costs as everyone knows. With soaring national budget deficits, the expenses for major peace-time deployments abroad are simply no longer sustainable. When it is understood, moreover, that South Korean conventional forces are vastly superior to North Korean conventional forces, these American deployments are even more difficult to justify. Indeed, one can imagine that Pyongyang was genuinely intimidated by exercises, such as “Max Thunder,” for the precise reason that the North Korean Air Force is a complete joke with obsolete aircraft and no jet fuel to put at training its pilots. Then, there is the rather considerable factor that North Korean military forces do not even have proper nutrition apparently. If one realizes these basic deficiencies hold true across North Korea’s armed forces, then it becomes clear that the U.S. forces in South Korea may be making the nuclear proliferation problem actually more acute, since they only compound the vast conventional asymmetry in military power (that accompanies the economic, cultural and institutional asymmetries as well) between the two Koreas.

The idea of “alliance decoupling” is viewed as wholly distasteful by the Washington foreign-policy blob, without even a thought about how alliances sometimes cause instability, either through entrapment or triggering the security dilemma in unfortunate ways. You don’t have to have a PhD in international relations to realize that such tendencies were the major cause of the World War I. Well, then there is the tiresome argument about “credibility,” as if the American Republic would shrivel up and hide in the corner after rationalizing and reigning in various excessive commitments. On the contrary, as Stephen Walt, explains persuasively, U.S. foreign and defense policy would be immeasurably improved with enhanced credibility once commitments and interests are brought into better alignment. Moreover, the very idea of a “trip wire,” such a fashionable idea back in the Cold War, would in itself appear to indicate certain deep and rather mysterious insecurities among elites in both Washington and Seoul. Do they really consider Americans to be so dishonorable that they surmise the United States would walk away from South Korea in a time of genuine national emergency (i.e. under North Korean attack) instead of sending immediate reinforcements? Indeed, an approach that is more confident about American stoicism, realizes that there would be tangible benefits from “offshore balancing,” so that American bases would not form direct, initial targets and American forces most crucially do not trigger the security dilemma as viewed from Pyongyang. U.S. forces would still be available and indeed “all in” for worst case scenarios, should that somehow come to pass. Calm confidence could enable a more stable, less “trigger-happy,” and a genuinely more sustainable posture—in addition to forming the fundamental basis for U.S.-DPRK denuclearization talks.

Let us hope that, in the wake of pompous and careless talk about the “Libya model,” that the opportunity for peace or at least a substantially more stable and secure Korean Peninsula has not been lost altogether. Perhaps as Leon Sigal explains recently, the problem with the recent “Massive Thunder” exercise was not the exercise itself, but rather the fact that nuclear-capable B-52s played a prominent role. Maybe so. But was it really necessary to continue such massive military exercises during the course of delicate planning in the run up to the historic summit? I think not. Given immense U.S. and South Korean military superiority (both conventional and nuclear), exercise parameters and troop numbers should all have been placed on the table for discussion. If we want to see a serious negotiation with Pyongyang on denuclearization, then we had better realize that this would necessarily be a phased process lasting years, with an action-for-action concept as its core principle [行动对行动的原子]. James Clapper seems to endorse such a “tit for tat” approach that puts U.S. troops on the table when he called very recently for the United States to offer North Korea “a road map to withdrawing many of our forces from the peninsula.” A very similar “cooperation spiral” may also be the best approach because this is the conclusion of social psychology regarding efforts to foster cooperation among rivals. In other words, “tit for tat” cooperation is much more scientifically defensible than the illusory “grand bargain” leap into the unknown that is all too likely to falter, as it appeared to last week.

South Korean conservatives are said to argue for a return to the "paper of record” and it’s not particularly objective rendering of the stakes that were at issue on the Korean Peninsula in the vital negotiation that seems, against all odds, to be back on track—maybe. In considering Trump’s directive to evaluate the possibility of decreasing U.S. troops on the peninsula, the arguments of the South Korean conservatives that such measures “would expose their country to potential foes far stronger than North Korea, like China and Japan, which have invaded numerous times over the centuries.” Is there really a Japanese threat to South Korea? A Chinese threat? No, there is not demonstrably and such arguments do not merit consideration by serious analysts with a modicum of familiarity with the region’s contemporary politics.

Rather, the overwhelming imperative was and continues to be stabilizing the current crisis by codifying the “freeze” and moving toward a more stable security arrangement through gradual disarmament and enhanced engagement. Kim (and Xi also) are no doubt aware that U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East have not gone well and Americans are quite plainly in no mood for new and large-scale military undertakings. Pressure tactics might have been helpful over the last year, to be sure, but plainly can also go way too far (especially since they ultimately lack credibility). The current administration, at once brave enough to break with the blob to schedule a meeting with Kim, nevertheless has almost fallen short since it has not yet put sufficiently weighty and shiny carrots onto the table to thoroughly test whether Kim is open to enabling a genuinely positive future for his country and the rest of Northeast Asia.

For those hawks apt to call any compromise or concession a form of “appeasement,” they should consider the wisdom of British prime minister Winston Churchill speaking about Korea in the dark days of December 1950: “Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.” It is likely not coincidental that his reflections on the issue evolved to consider the exceedingly dangerous age of nuclear weaponry that was just dawning in the early Cold War. There can be little doubt that the United States, along with South Korea and Japan, are today in a position of immense relative strength and need not fear basic compromises to reach common sense solutions.

The world is applauding with enthusiasm that the Trump-Kim summit is seemingly back on. Patience, determination and above all creative problem-solving on all sides will be needed to break the militarized stalemate that has held the peoples of Northeast Asia in its menacing grip for far too long.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Research Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute at Naval War College. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their summit at the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea, in this handout picture provided by the Presidential Blue House on May 26, 2018.