NO ONE is against peace. Moving away from the state of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula would be a welcome and historic development for Koreans and Americans. And avoiding a return to the mutual recriminations and threats of military attack in 2017 would be smart for everyone. When the United States was considering a limited military strike on North Korea in 2017, the situation was so tense that, according to Bob Woodward, President Trump on more than one occasion wanted to tweet that U.S. dependents should start to leave the theater. For anyone familiar with the order of battle and operational plans on the peninsula, such an act could easily have sparked a war.
Moreover, many advocates would argue that a peace declaration offers many benefits with little downside. James E. Goodby has contended that the peace declaration would be a pronouncement of non-hostile intent by all parties and might transform the overall atmosphere in which nuclear negotiations could take place. It would be in exchange for some initial denuclearization steps, which might be a less-than-perfect outcome for the absolutist “CVID-oriented” nonproliferation ideologues in the United States, but these steps would still constitute an advancement beyond achievements of any previous administration. China would support a peace declaration, as would Russia. Japan might not, but proponents argue that a peace agreement could become a new platform of non-hostile intent from which Japan-DPRK bilateral tension reduction and normalization talks could commence. Finally, a peace declaration would not be tantamount to a formal peace treaty, so it would not impact the United Nations Command or the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command, keeping the core of the U.S.-ROK alliance and deterrence posture firmly intact. Thus, advocates claim that this looks like a “winner” all around the table.
Not really. Prudent policymaking requires calculating the follow-on consequences of any policy achievement. In the case of a peace declaration, the unforeseen consequence could be Trump’s decision to abandon security commitments to the Korean peninsula. Under most circumstances, an interim peace declaration would not constitute the conditions under which alliance managers would contemplate an erosion of the U.S. security presence in Korea. As noted, such an agreement would be interim, carrying with it no obligatory drawdown of troops or dismantling of the Combined Forces Command. However, there is a unique constellation of forces at work that could lead the American president to reach such a conclusion.
First, Donald Trump holds a core belief that U.S. security commitments to allies, and in particular troop commitments, are a waste of money that allow allies to free-ride off of American military beneficence while permitting them to “fleece” the United States on trade. This is a deeply-held opinion that long pre-dates Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office. According to a unique Center for Strategic and International Studies Korea Chair dataset of statements by Trump on U.S. troop commitments abroad, the then real estate mogul first revealed his thinking in a 1990 Playboy Magazine interview:
We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about fifteen minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.
In over 111 instances in the dataset covering twenty-nine years (1990 to present) Trump has returned to this theme with consistency, reflecting a neo-isolationist school of thought and an antagonistic and transactional view of allies. In a 2013 interview with then Fox News’ anchor Greta Van Susteren, he said: “You look as an example, South Korea. We are spending tremendous—we’ll spend billions and billions of dollars to protect them from North Korea. They are not giving us anything.”
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump again returned to this policy principle in a sit-down interview with the Times’ Maggie Haberman and David Sanger. Trump said “[on whether he would withdraw troops from South Korea and Japan] Yes, I would. I would not do so happily, but I would be willing to do it… We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this. We just can’t do it anymore…” Later in the same interview, he described “America First” and said
So we had, so America first, yes, we will not be ripped off anymore. We’re going to be friendly with everybody, but we’re not going to be taken advantage of by anybody... I think we’ll be very worldview, but we’re not going to be ripped off anymore by all of these countries [he named China, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East earlier].
While Trump has a transactional economic logic for pulling troops out of Korea, he cannot do so while in the midst of a nuclear crisis with North Korea since this would look like an unadulterated defeat, which would constitute policy failure and, more importantly for him, damage his ego. Herein lies the danger of an interim peace agreement. Such an agreement would be appealing to Trump because he would inflate it as “ending the Korean War,” enhancing his self-made argument for Nobel Peace Prize worthiness. If such an agreement were coupled with the fanfare of another summit window-dressed with some modest denuclearization measures, Trump could claim he got a better deal than any of his predecessors. The sum of these measures would give him a platform for executing troop withdrawal as a policy victory—having “solved” the problem—rather than a policy defeat.
Domestically, there would be little popular opposition to such a measure. While the “inside-the-beltway” policy community would be apoplectic, for the American public a president’s message that troops are coming home after over sixty-five years in Korea would resonate deeply as a positive outcome. Trump would spin his actions as a bold, big policy victory: ending the Korean War and allowing America to shed expensive commitments overseas. The interim nature of a peace agreement, and the unfinished business of denuclearization are policy details that mean little to the president and to an electoral base that already expresses 85 percent approval rating (Republicans) over Trump’s North Korea diplomacy. Meanwhile, it would not just be the Cato Institute or Koch Brothers that would support such a move; other branches of the U.S. military might support a ground troop drawdown for budgetary reasons as it might release resources for Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine projects. And American business might see a peace dividend coming from Trump’s actions. I gave a speech to a hundred small and mid-cap ceos from the Midwest shortly after the Singapore Summit. Rather than asking questions about the North Korea threat, many of them questioned why we still need troops in South Korea if Trump and Kim are meeting on such friendly terms.
American acquiescence to a major policy shift like troop withdrawal stems not from gullibility to Trump’s political spinning of his accomplishments; rather, it comes from a general lack of understanding of the Korean issue. Polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2018 shows that Americans have generally positive feelings about Korea. They recognize that South Korea is an ally and support the United States coming to South Korea’s defense. 74 percent of Americans supported maintaining long-term U.S. military bases in South Korea, 64 percent supported the United States sending troops to defend South Korea, and 78 percent consider South Korea to be a partner to the United States. However, the vulnerability in this apparent goodwill is that basic knowledge about Korea is dangerously thin. Americans may understand that South Korea is an ally, but when asked, “which Korea is the good one?” only about half of them get it right. Without more deeply grounded understanding of the issue, the lack of knowledge makes the public susceptible to wide swings in opinion based on events of the day.
THE CONTEXT of a Trump withdrawal from South Korea would be positive: stressing the achievement of peace, the natural maturation of the alliance to a more equal footing and the continued American security commitment. The subtext would be much more negative, however, reflecting a significant and possibly irreparable erosion of the alliance. In addition to Trump’s isolationist tendencies and his transactional view of alliances, he sees no particular value in the relationship with South Korea. He believes that South Korea free-rides on U.S. security while fleecing America on trade imbalances, which is why he wanted on three separate occasions during his first year in office to preemptively withdraw from the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), impose steel tariffs and is now considering auto tariffs. In the former two cases, the main counterarguments offered by aides were not economic, but cited the importance of alliance coordination in the face of North Korea’s threats in 2017. When Trump wanted options in 2017 for a military strike on North Korea, his aides urged against him citing the danger to U.S. forces stationed there. And when Trump wanted to pull dependents from South Korea during the crisis, his aides urged restraint because this would be tantamount to abandoning an ally. Trump ultimately heeded these policy recommendations, but they did not comport with his sensibilities. On the contrary, they arguably reinforced his view of the transactional costs of this alliance. This is because Trump’s policy conventions are contorted—rather than moderating his policy instincts to preserve alliance equities as his advisors suggested, Trump sees the alliance as inhibiting him from acting on his instincts to the fullest. Thus, he views the alliance as a liability, not an asset in the U.S. register of power.