Synopsis: DC Exchanges on US-ROK Relations

The US-ROK relationship is overshadowing other interests in Washington regarding foreign policy in East Asia. The ongoing US-China trade war may appear more urgent, but in the absence of Chinese visitors defending Chinese position or US officials eager to explain the US position when Trump is prone to change it on short notice, exchanges have been rather limited. US-North Korean relations and ROK-Japanese relations are encapsulated in discussions mostly through scrutiny of US-ROK differences in thinking. This article aims to capture the essence of such exchanges, setting aside for separate treatment the US response to the Japan-ROK quarrel.

The late summer and early fall of 2019 put the spotlight on South Korea more than at any point in recent memory. Concern over ROK-Japan relations reached unprecedented levels. The state of the ROK-US relationship drew considerable concern. Not far from sight is the impact of North Korea on ROK relations with the two amid frozen North-South relations. This synopsis of DC panels and presentations covers three themes: 1) ROK progressives vs. US realists; 2) US-ROK relations more broadly; and 3) the China factor in ongoing US-ROK relations. Together, they convey the flavor of a troubled time both in US foreign policy and in the stability of Northeast Asia, as made clear in the many exchanges in DC over evolving US-ROK relations.

Some in Washington have begun to fear a “perfect storm.” Kim Jong-un turns to provocations after he abandons hope in the deal from the US and the ROK he had sought; Donald Trump succumbs to hallucinations in the midst of impeachment tensions; Sino-US relations deteriorate further in the shadow of a trade war that cannot be averted; and Japan and South Korea find no way to reverse the downward spiral of 2019. The Northeast Asian region would be left in shambles, but especially in disarray would be South Korea, directly riled by Trump’s heedless demands and without any way forward in its strategic relations with all of the countries active in this region. Against such concerns, South Korean appeals for US backing for Moon Jae-in’s policies arouse doubts.

Such a scenario would fly in the face of the wishful thinking most often heard in recent months from South Koreans coming to Washington. Somehow, Kim would be ready to reach a pragmatic compromise if Trump would just hold a fourth summit with him and seek a “small deal” aimed at building trust. Somehow, Moon has pushed the right buttons with Trump and the relations between the two allies are proceeding much better than most observers perceive. The appeal to Trump is to cut a deal with Xi Jinping and avoid Sino-US confrontation, deemed to be entirely possible. Moreover, rightful Korean anger toward Japan is seen as posing no wider problem. If some in Seoul fear a doomsday scenario, this is not the message generally presented to the US.

Two developments of late have undercut South Korean hopes. One is Kim’s refusal to persist with inter-Korean talks while striving to marginalize Moon, which could result in Trump cutting a deal without taking South Korean interests into account—something he is seen as more likely to do than previous US presidents. The other is Trump’s decision to cut and run in Syria, leading to a bipartisan outcry in the US Congress at his weakness and his disregard for US security interests. In the aftermath of that uproar it would be difficult for Trump to again test the patience of the US security community over North Korea. The optimism expressed after the departure of John Bolton that Trump would now take a softer approach to Kim has faded in the face of Bolton’s rising credibility along with that of former secretary James Mattis for resisting Trump’s erratic and even isolationist management of US foreign policy, as in Syria.

International relations academics are often looking for the driving forces at times of change. South Korean commentators appear to weigh leadership most heavily. Moon, Trump, and Kim are depicted as offering a rare opportunity to make a deal. This constellation is unlikely to be repeated; so reservations should be set aside in favor of seizing the moment. In contrast, doubters recognize Kim’s tactical success in timing diplomacy to take advantage of the presence of the other two leaders, but they deny that Moon’s idealism and Trump’s unfettered spontaneity constitute sound strategic thinking or point the way to overcoming the structural divides and national identity gaps, which threaten to revive the downward spiral prior to 2018.  

Korean Progressives versus US realists

The principal divide between the supporters of Moon coming to Washington and realists on the US side who rarely defend Trump’s policies is over policy toward North Korea. Other issues sometimes figure into their clashing viewpoints, but at this critical juncture in policy toward North Korea the focus is on what the next steps should be. On one side, the appeal is for more flexibility to win the trust of Kim. On the other, it is for more conditionality and enforcement of sanctions to try to convince Kim to denuclearize.

The exchanges over North Korea are important for at least three reasons. First, how well each country’s strategy toward the North works depends heavily on the extent to which there is coordination. Thus, attention centers on the similarities and differences over approaches to the North. Second, the US-ROK alliance is now overwhelmingly centered on the North Korean issue. Should a sharp gap open here the bilateral relationship could be shaken—some warn more so than at any time since the Korean War. Third, there is much talk of countries trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. With ROK-Japan relations under duress, spillover to ROK-US relations may become manifest through divisions over the North aggravated by others.

Two contrasting images of the South Korean role have lately been aired. In one, Seoul is a “bridging state,” initially between Washington and Pyongyang but unquestioningly between Washington and Beijing too and for Northeast Asia as a whole. To play a bridging role rests on either defiance of Washington or its readiness for “responsibility sharing.” Progressives seek this, claiming that they have a strategy of “peace building.” On the basis of the Moon-Kim summits and especially the three Trump-Kim summits, the table is supposedly set for a momentum booster at a fourth Trump-Kim meeting, they argue. It is assumed that Trump will be primed for action given his thirst for a success prior to the 2020 elections, and that Kim, in need of an economic payoff for suffering North Koreans and having set a deadline at the end of this year, is anxious to reach a deal. Supposedly, Trump has a virtually free hand at home, given the deference of Republicans to him and the anti-war mood visible in Democratic candidates. Yet, Trump’s controversial decision on Syria in October places such an assumption in doubt.

The realist counterargument is that not only does Seoul not have the leverage or trust to play the role envisioned by the progressives, but its situation has materially deteriorated since the failed Hanoi summit. Apart from the shaky prospect of Trump’s hints at compromise (wrongly assumed to be much heightened by the departure of John Bolton as national security advisor) and ability to sell it to the US policy elite (even more so after the outrage over Syria). Moon is facing increasing marginalization and even isolation in Northeast Asia. Japan has targeted him. North Korea refuses to talk to him. China and Russia have just applied pressure on him through a flyover in Korea’s exclusive economic zone. Counting solely on Trump’s idiosyncratic wooing of Kim is a problematic strategy, even more so in late 2019 as conditions have altered.

Developments in 2019 led progressives and realists to two contrasting interpretations. Rhetoric warning of a year-end deadline or else, short-range missile tests, vague, open-ended demands for security guarantees, upbeat summits with Russia and China, and the curtailment of talks with South Korea were seen as ominous by realists and just a sense of urgency by progressives.
The optimists were pleased that Trump responded that all that matters is Kim is abiding by his promises to Trump, while the pessimists saw no sign of progress and rising signs of danger. The former group saw Hanoi as a close call, which shows the way forward. A compromise is within reach with an end of war declaration, a peace treaty, liaison offices, and prepositioning for the North Korean economy what will show it a bright future. The latter group saw a wide gap still present on the core issue, counted more than 30 security guarantees already offered over the years by the US with little chance new ones would matter, and concluded that Pyongyang must demonstrate its sincerity before sanctions are relaxed. Once relaxed, they warned that there is no way to reimpose them—given the thinking in Beijing and Moscow. Until Pyongyang changes course, the right response is to enforce sanctions better, through the coordination cell located in Tokyo, blocking coal going out and petroleum coming in. Some realists went so far as to say that the Singapore statement was a step back from the September 2005 joint statement, that talks in 2018-19 have made no progress on denuclearization, that without a roadmap and also meaningful working level talks there is no basis for optimism, and that the costs of Trump’s approach are considerable (loss of military exercises, weakening of deterrence, failure to enforce US law and UN sanctions, and ignoring human rights). If the top-down approach was worth a try to test Kim, it is no longer worth pursuing, argue the realists, who would test Kim in bottom-up diplomacy and put no faith in Trump cavalierly following his instincts.

Progressives have a rose-colored vocabulary such as a “new Korean Peninsula regime” and a “peace economy.” What they do not have is North Korean buy-in on such aspirations. They favor a “small deal” and find hope in expectations that Trump is now so inclined. Realists do not know what Trump may do, but they fear a deal that takes away the sanctions weapon without clarity on such critical matters as verification procedures to ensure compliance. Both parties rely on arguments about Trump, although they also draw on interpretations of Kim. The realist side has a decidedly negative view of both leaders: Trump is driven by instinct and may be salivating over building hotels in Wonsan after he leaves office; Kim is an inveterate liar whose goals are incompatible with a durable deal and whose promises could not be trusted. In this situation, both a roadmap and working-level talks are essential if there is to be any hope. Instead of summit-to-summit and working-level progress, diplomacy is failing. For realists, the progressives are grasping for straws without any basis for optimism they convey.

The situation could change if Pyongyang decided to negotiate in good faith rather than hoping to capitalize on the reckless whims of Trump. However much Bolton is faulted for contributing to a slack diplomatic process, he is viewed as an official who insisted on real evidence of Kim’s intentions. His opposition to Trump’s unilateral pullback from Syria and shadow diplomacy to undermine Ukraine’s fight against corruption looks better in retrospect. The price to be paid from his absence as a check on Trump’s dealings with North Korea is now on people’s minds as Pompeo’s reputation as an enabler of Trump’s worst instincts has sparked outrage. Instead of Trump being freed without Bolton to be more strategic, as progressives anticipate, he is at even more liberty to bypass strategic guardrails in order to pursue what appears politically expedient.

Realists do not see Kim preparing for give-and-take but instead view him as preparing an ultimatum at year end backed by threats of resumed testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. They have seen no sign that he would agree to the verification necessary to ensure that a new agreement does not collapse the way others have. Yet, they note that over the past 33 months the only real diplomacy by Trump has been with Kim, and he is loath to let it go to wont. Similarly, Moon has put all of his eggs in the basket of talks with Kim. Failing diplomacy elsewhere by these two leaders raises concern that they would spin a bad deal with Pyongyang as if it were a success. Remarks by progressives only add to this alarm since they reinforce the impression that Moon would accept a bad deal and would urge Trump to proceed with it. Whereas Nixon and Kissinger had the reputation in 1971-72 of hard-nosed realists who would not compromise the national interest, neither Trump nor Moon does.

US-ROK relations more broadly

On the surface, the US side insists that it has no better, friendlier ally than South Korea, and the South Korean side claims that the alliance is in fine shape. This argument is buttressed by assertions about growing economic ties and continuing sanctions coordination. Trade has risen to $170 billion a year with a rapidly declining US trade deficit in contrast to the widening trade deficits with the six partners with which the US conducts more trade. The key to this is shale gas exports, which are America’s largest. Also significant is the rapid rise in Korean FDI in the US with massive projects in the lead. As for sanctions, impressions of Seoul pressing for relief in order to go ahead with North-South projects should not obscure the fact that Seoul carefully fulfills its obligations to enforce sanctions. The US official stance is positive on US-ROK relations. One meeting after another hales the positive state of relations, but there is an undercurrent of US distrust of Moon’s naivete toward Kim and Korean distrust of Trump for rhetoric and actions that are not only inconsistent but also put the bilateral alliance at risk. Tensions over unprecedented US unilateral demands and policy toward third countries matter as well.

Sources of unease about the future of US-ROK relations are many and burst to the surface in ongoing exchanges. On the US side, there is insistence that South Korea pay much more in host nation support through the talks under way on the Special Measures Assessment. After being pressed to make a larger increase than in the past in 2018, Seoul had to agree to a second set of talks just a year earlier, where the US side is asking $5 billion more rather than a small increase to $1 billion in the SMA. This wide gap could portend a breakdown in the talks by year’s end and, given Trump’s threats of troop withdrawals, turmoil in the alliance at a critical juncture.

On the South Korean side, there is reluctance to be dragged into a Sino-US confrontation over security, economics, and technology. Some are confident that Koreans awakened to the nature of China in 2016, when its THAAD retaliation began, and that they have made their choice as a US ally, but there is concern that pressing Seoul to openly distant itself from Beijing would be bad for ROK-US relations. Beijing keeps damaging its own reputation in business, with the July 23 joint flyover with Russia over Korea’s exclusive economic zone, and in its handling of Hong Kong.

Somehow, Korean sources think that amid growing fear of the worst of times a turn to stability and peace in Northeast Asia is within reach if only the Sino-US conflict can be ameliorated. If the Soviet-US conflict had few economic consequences and deep ideological roots, the Sino-US divide is completely different. Both sides can recall joint success in defeating first Japanese militarism and then Soviet totalitarianism and can appreciate that they prosper together as a result of peace and stability. Their shared interest in steering North Korea into a responsible approach to the future of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia also serves as a foundation for a G2, which seems to be less worrisome to Seoul than it is to Tokyo. In 2017 China and the US had a big success in pressuring North Korea through sanctions, and both are pleased that the North has turned to diplomacy for two years. The message from South Koreans is for the US to resolve the trade war with China and strive to stabilize relations for the sake of North Korea if no other reason. Yet, Seoul’s relationship with Beijing has failed to recover from the trouble in 2016, and it is no position to deliver a similar message to Beijing or to coordinate on Pyongyang.

The US response to such encouragement for Sino-US and North Korean-US relations is to focus on threats to security rather than on reassurances to build trust. The prevailing assumption is that Washington has tried hard to build trust as security threats have intensified, and they have only become graver. Naïve patience is not the answer. The US cannot accept deliverable nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea, there is no sign of a strategic decision by Kim to give them up (on the contrary, he is pursuing them amid talks), and it is assumed that he will never give them up voluntarily. To follow the paths sought by Seoul and Beijing would lead to Kim’s solidifying his threat capacity, observers in Washington warn. The fact that Kim is not testing nuclear weapons now is no assurance since he declared that he is finished testing, and production is assumed to continue unabated. The absence of tests of long-range missiles does not mean a lot as Kim’s short-range testing improves maneuverability useful for other missiles.

A major fear in Washington is that Beijing will shift from sanctions against Pyongyang to help in normalizing it despite lack of denuclearization. While some in Seoul share this concern, the way they appear to respond is different. Having watched under conservative presidents as South Korea curtailed trade with the North while China boosted its trade, they fear losing the North to China through the impact of economic integration. In contrast, the US fear is that relaxing the sanctions on North Korea is less a path to reducing China’s influence there than an invitation to China to intensify economic integration with the North. Should Trump decide to accept a partial agreement that relaxes sanctions the beneficiaries would be Pyongyang and Beijing. Another point raised is that time is on the side of North Korea. The US needs to be in a hurry on this. No other country can stop proliferation—whether in Iran or North Korea; the US must do it. This means that sanctions must be intensified, and military force be kept as an option, listeners heard. Another summit with Kim would be a waste, and he would not honor any commitment he made, is the reasoning heard in DC, even if the main concern is not to deny Kim a summit but to prevent a breach in the sanctions regime and Trump from his designs.

Who is disengaging in East Asia? Many in the US view Seoul as lukewarm on sanctions against North Korea, resistant to a united stand against China, and, lately, blasé about the damage it is doing to trilateral security cooperation inclusive of Japan. This leads to deterioration of alliance capabilities at a critical time and weakening of a united front to deter North Korea, they argue. In turn, many in South Korea are nervous about Trump’s inclinations to disengage. He threatens to pull out troops, shows scant regard for allies, and has betrayed Kurdish allies in Syria. While Trump satisfied Moon by holding summits with Kim, he left many in Seoul concerned by his readiness to suspend joint military exercises and by the language he used to refer to Kim. There is concern that Trump might decide to pull out troops, blaming South Korea for paying too little in support and for not sufficiently supporting US strategic objectives in East Asia.

South Korean speakers view the diplomacy of 2018-19 differently from the US speakers and questioners. They see progress, when the US side sees not one step forward, viewing the moratorium in force as of no significance, especially for revealing the North’s intentions. As for whether the North Korean threat has diminished, they say it has, while the US side says that the sense of urgency has faded that feel-good imagery, we are not safer overall. The South Korean side traces a scenario of rising trust, economic development bringing confidence in dealings with the outside, and one upbeat stage leading to another and ending in denuclearization. The US side is worried that a “small deal” kills the chances of denuclearization, undermines deterrence, and makes it next to impossible to reimpose maximum pressure.  The result will be no denuclearized North Korea and no genuine peace. In agreeing to a “small deal,” Trump may try to claim a success, but he would leave to the next US president the challenge of picking up the pieces from an agreement that leaves much indeterminate and emboldens Pyongyang to assert that it is a “responsible nuclear power.” Trump’s “bromance” with Kim and strong temptation in Hanoi to reach a “small deal” if Kim had not driven such a hard bargain may leave Trump expecting an opportunity to build hotels in Wonsan, but the legacy for the next president is doubtful. 

Trump’s pressure for Moon to agree to $5 billion in host-nation support may be understood as an opener in talks, but it is an outrageous affront to mutual trust, particularly when it is backed by Trump’s warnings about reducing US forces in South Korea. The idea has been floated that Trump could cut the troop level in proportion to the shortfall in South Korea’s payments, as understood by Trump’s skewed analysis. This could be compounded if Trump were to agree to a “small deal” including a peace declaration and then oversell it as if the need for US forces has diminished. The prospect of US abandonment is taken more seriously in Seoul under Trump.

Both Washington and Seoul fault the other for insufficient consultations despite attempts to redeem the situation. On North Korea policy, mutual criticisms point to informing the other rather than consulting in advance. There is fear that the other side would lead what is said or that Washington would apply pressure to keep Seoul from doing what it regards as necessary. Given the dearth of coordination in dealing with third countries, the problem is compounded.

The China factor in ongoing US-ROK relations

Regardless of what goes wrong in bilateral relations, someone is bound to warn that China will be the big winner. The shadow of China looms over the US-ROK relationship: whether in talk of 5G technology enabling China to spy or of the loss of GSOMIA weakening defenses against both China and North Korea or moves to isolate North Korea backfiring by enabling China to prevail in the competition to integrate with and gain influence over that country. Many South Koreans warn that the worse Sino-US relations are, the less likely it is that North Korea will denuclearize. If Trump has fundamentally changed US relations with North Korea, the fact that he likewise has seriously ruptured Sino-US relations makes success with Kim more improbable. In contrast, some on the US side argue that China has long been the lifeline of the Kim regime, and the failure to insist sufficiently that China pressure the regime is what hurts denuclearization.

Reasoning on China in Seoul both reassures Washington and offers it a warning. The assurance comes from insistence that Seoul is firmly on the US side as an ally and a believer in universal values. In addition, there is much awareness of distrust of China, especially after its sanctions over the THAAD deployment. Nobody comes to Washington from Seoul to suggest that exploration of closer ties with Beijing is taking place. Unlike the period 2013-15 when Park Geun-hye seemed to be wooing Xi Jinping amid talk of a “honeymoon,” Moon’s relationship with Xi draws scant interest, Xi has not visited Moon in Seoul, and when they meet any rapport is missing.

Warnings appear when talk turns to Trump’s pressure on Seoul that could upend the alliance. These are both bilateral, as in demands for a massive increase in the SMA, and triangular if the US put pressure on South Korea to get it more involved in containing China, as in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy or decoupling in certain areas of security sensitive technology.

If China were not looming in the shadows, talk of managing North Korea’s ascent into the nuclear club by socializing it to become a normal state, as if Kim could become a new Deng Xiaoping, might gain more favor. The notion that peaceful coexistence could be turned into economic integration as happened with China and then denuclearization is not received with optimism. Whatever the short-term prospects for peacekeeping, they are not linked to peace building not only because of the character of the North Korean state, but also due to the presence of China, which is perceived as striving to use North Korea for regional transformation more than regional stabilization. Whatever hopes Seoul may have to be a “bridging state” or for “responsibility sharing” for the future of the Korean Peninsula, they are faulted not only in light of Pyongyang’s refusal to cooperate, but also as a result of China’s intentions to capitalize on the situation, argue Americans to their South Korean counterparts.

Disagreeing that the US is the cause of the stalemate in diplomacy—unable to make the courageous decision to give Kim what he needs for a deal—experts who have followed US diplomacy closely over a long period argue that there has been considerable flexibility. Instead, Pyongyang has refused to negotiate in good faith, to conduct working level talks to try to bridge differences, and to take US security guarantees as more than a smokescreen for more ambitious objectives. Calling on the US to alter its stance in these circumstances is essentially to ask it to negotiate with itself. Meanwhile, Pyongyang knows that Beijing as well as Moscow are limiting pressure on it to achieve goals other than denuclearization. The sobering message in response to South Korean calls for the US position to shift toward North Korea is not only that the North is not showing reciprocity, but also that without a shift in China’s position the prospects are dim. If in 2016-17 China increased pressure on the North, this was not sufficient, and in 2019 the opposite shift is taking place. In these circumstances, Pyongyang is even less likely to be serious about denuclearization.

One hears also the argument that Pyongyang is preparing to turn toward Beijing in light of the failure of talks with the US; therefore, Washington should work with Seoul to convince it that a “peace regime” with the South is a better option. This lowers the urgency of denuclearization or rests on what are seen as far-fetched assumptions about how trust would lead to that result.