alliances, allies, America First, China, core deterrence, deterrence, extended deterrence, Kim Jong Un, Moon Jae-in, North Korea, Northeast Asia, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, sanctions, South Korea, Ted Galen Carpenter, The National Interest, tripwire, Trump
What comes after “patently absurd” – and maybe masochistically so? Whatever the phrase, it’s what would perfectly describe the point reached by U.S. policy toward North Korea and its nuclear forces over the last week. And the developments responsible are making it clearer than ever that, without further delay, President Trump needs to shift his Korean peninsula policy focus to getting the tens of thousands of American troops and their families stationed there far out of harm’s way.
First, South Korea’s newish President Moon Jae-in has once again just reminded anyone willing to listen that his top priority isn’t the declared U.S. imperative of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear forces – and in a verifiable way. It’s avoiding any kind of conflict in Korea, and counting on the combination of America’s own nuclear and conventional military forces to accomplish that goal.
Given the likely horrific costs of even a conventional conflict on the peninsula, that’s completely understandable on his part. In fact, if I were Moon, that’s what I’d be doing. And this need explains his enthusiastic response to a pretty modest (even by North Korean standards) diplomatic initiative from dictator Kim Jong-un. It also explains the South’s long-time failure to build armed forces able to handle the North’s armies on their own. Far better to rely on the more powerful threat posed to the North by U.S. nuclear forces to deter the North from even contemplating an attack. And far cheaper, too!
The problem is that whereas Moon’s strategy would have been acceptable in the period before North Korea developed nuclear weapons able to hit the American homeland, those days are either gone, or nearly gone. As a result, his strategy now poses completely unacceptable risks for the United States.
Not that Moon may not be entirely right in believing that a little more patience and a little more flexibility from Seoul and especially Washington can resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully. But what if he’s wrong, and North Korea simply uses any delay (and especially any resulting relief from economic sanctions) to make further nuclear weapons progress – including building more, improving their performance, and hiding them more effectively?
In that case, the odds rise that something goes wrong in this powder keg region and fighting breaks out after all. And since a conflict could easily result in North Korea destroying a major American city or two with its nuclear weapons, those odds are way too high for any sensible U.S. leader to accept. Even worse, as I’ve written previously, the American troops are stationed in South Korea, right near the border with the North, precisely to force a president to unsheathe U.S. nukes and risk retaliation in kind from the North. Can we all agree that American decisions to use nuclear weapons and run these risks should always be a matter of choice and not necessity? (For an excellent discussion of the dangers of such “tripwire” forces, see this first of three articles on the subject by the excellent foreign policy analyst – and my good friend – Ted Galen Carpenter.)
That’s precisely the truly vital U.S. goal that pulling the American troops out will accomplish – along with eliminating any rational need for Kim Jong-un even to consider using nuclear weapons against the vastly superior United States. Special bonus: A pledge from Washington to use nuclear weapons to prevent attack on its own soil (which political scientists call “core deterrence”) is infinitely more credible than a pledge to use these arms to protect another country (which is termed “extended deterrence”).
Once this unnecessary and unacceptable American vulnerability is removed, Washington should wish the South Koreans well with whatever diplomacy, or combination of diplomacy and a hedging military buildup, they wish to pursue.
Ditto for the policies of Northeast Asia’s other powerful countries, which brings us to the second reason for an American military withdrawal from Korea. Two of the peninsula’s neighbors – China and Russia – have taken indirectly free-riding off the U.S. nuclear pledge to South Korea to new heights. In recent weeks, both have been credibly accused of secretly shipping oil to the Kim Jong-un dictatorship in violation of UN sanctions that they both supported. (See, e.g., here and here.)
Breaking international commitments is hardly praiseworthy, but the obvious implication is that China and Russia are both OK with the status quo on the Korean peninsula. They may even be enjoying it – in the sense of the crisis fraying American nerves and tying down American forces. Or Beijing and Moscow may be struggling to prevent damaging fall-out from a North Korean economic collapse.
Either of these also would be perfectly reasonable judgments, and the Russians and Chinese should feel completely free to handle the North however they wish – maybe in tandem with South Korea, or some UN initiative. But only if the American troops are gone.
In this vein, especially interesting was this piece in The National Interest, which portrays Northeast Asia as a region marked by growing economic cooperation among major powers that historically have often been at each other’s throats. If so, why is the United States, located thousands of miles away, bearing such outsized risks for preserving peace – and the chances that the region could flourish?
The author, a professor at the U.S.’ Naval War College, seems to be saying, “Let Northeast Asia be Northeast Asia”. That sounds great to me – and like an idea that’s entirely compatible with “America First.”