A subtle message from the summit

Robert E. McCoy | June 25, 2018

When US President Trump agreed – perhaps only conditionally – to cease “provocative war games” with South Korea, there was a deeper message in that statement for those who were listening.

While pundits are busily reading tea leaves to forecast the future in light of a summit that was remarkably light on substance, one thing seems clear: joint South Korean-US military exercises are on hold– for the time being, at least.

This could be seen as merely a “freeze for freeze” response to Kim’s halt of nuclear testing and missile launches. And that would be a fair enough conclusion, but there is a more unsettling meaning, if one looks for it. That message is one word – disengagement.

Remember what Trump campaigned on and presumably why those who voted for him did so. Making America great again, in Trump’s mind, requires that the US focus almost exclusively upon itself, that for far too long others in the world have gotten a free ride at America’s expensive.

Trump’s willingness to pull US troops really got Seoul’s attention and that is another clue as to what is on Trump’s mind. However, that US contingent of 28,500 soldiers is a significant part of the South’s defensive makeup. Moreover, American forces on the peninsula are a guarantor not only of defensive security but Seoul’s credit rating and American foreign direct investment as well. 

Recall Trump’s desire to get Seoul to assume more of the financial burden for American troops in country. Currently, South Korea pay roughly US$890 million, less than half of the total cost of stationing American soldiers in South Korea . Trump’s latest thinking would obviate that question – the troops go home and there is no expense to share.

Naturally, the South Korean administration was taken aback, possibly – probably – because they were not consulted on or informed of this decision ahead of time. After some consternation, Seoul countered that Washington could not unilaterally withdraw American troops because those troops were part of a bilateral security arrangement between South Korea and the US.

However, neither was Trump consulted or informed when South Korean President Moon declared that there would be no US attack on North Korea without first securing Seoul’s approval . This avowal occurred while Trump was attempting to generate support for his “maximum pressure” targeting North Korea that certainly included the threat of preventive military action.

Then there is Moon’s desire to engage the North at almost any cost and without regard for the concerns of nearly everyone else with a stake in the game. Were it not for sanctions, it is likely that Moon would already be writing checks payable to Kim Jong Un.

None of this suits Trump. However, critics argue that pulling US troops out of South Korea – or even merely canceling joint military exercises with the South – is giving Kim Jong Un exactly what he wants. Well, perhaps, but perhaps not.

Recall that at one point, Kim Jong Il, former leader of North Korea and the father of the current dictator, was actually in favor of some American troops remaining on the peninsula as a hedge against China’s irredentist goals of reclaiming Korea as a tributary state. It is not illogical to think that Kim Jong Un is of the same mind.

Regardless, these so-called concessions cost the US practically nothing. OPLAN exercises and field experience can be gained in a number of other ways and in different venues. And by removing American troops on the peninsula, the ongoing controversy about who controls them during war is avoided completely 

Additionally, Moon sees the South as a rising middle power, and consequently intends for Seoul to find its own way in the world. That is all well and good, but Trump just warned Moon to be careful what he wishes for because he just might get it.

Once any threat to the American mainland is removed through negotiations with North Korea, the United States could afford to pull its troops from the Korean Peninsula for at least two reasons. To begin, since no American leader in his or her right mind would ever envision invading China by land using Korea as a toe-hold on the Asian landmass, Korea no longer serves that purpose – if it ever did. From a geopolitical perspective, Korea is no longer that necessary to American interests in Asia.

Secondly, there is a Japan that is more than willing to step up and fulfil an increasingly military role as the main partner of the United States in Northeast Asia. One could argue that a vacillating South Korea willing to make political and economic engagement with an enemy is no longer is a reliable ally. That would increase the utility of Japan regarding American interests in the region.

Is Trump bluffing or does he truly intend to follow up on a campaign promise? With the mercurial American president, it is difficult to tell – and that uncertainty may be exactly what Trump the Dealmaker is counting on.

Image credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press

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