Washington Insights: December 2017

Confusion reigns with scant clarification by the oft-dysfunctional US government. The preoccupation with Trump’s tweets and statements persists, obscuring other points of analysis of East Asian matters. North Korea is a perpetual concern. At last, new appointees in the State Department and the Department of Defense are giving some hope of professional competence to the DC think tank community, even if there is no clarity about how Trump will make use of it.

Is China still on a course of drawing closer to the United States after the agreements at the Security Council on sanctions against North Korea and the purported success of the visit to China by Donald Trump? Many see a fragile relationship endangered by intensified US pressure for a full oil embargo against North Korea, to which China is opposed as it prioritizes unconditional dialogue, and by tougher US trade measures delayed for tactical reasons earlier in the year. Yet, few would have anticipated that the year would end with so little open tension between Trump and Xi, who since April have insisted that they have good personal relations.

Are Washington and Seoul still coordinating closely after Moon Jae-in agreed with Xi Jinping on the “three no’s”: no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in the US regional missile defense, and no trilateral alliance including Japan? Along with differences on how to deal with North Korea, this deference to China on South Korean security has led some to think that US-ROK relations are poised for conflict, not just regarding the continuation of KORUS FTA.  Yet, on the surface level, alliance ties remain strong and open criticism by Trump and Moon is not visible.

US ties to Russia in Asia cannot escape the severe disconnect between the president and virtually all others, against the backdrop of Russiagate; Russia keeps pressing for a softer approach to North Korea, as in its demand at the Security Council for a two-year period before all North Korean “guest workers” have to be sent home, but it, in the end, voted for all three 2017 resolutions tightening sanctions on the North. The Russo-US divide, despite Trump’s intentions and his upbeat meetings with Vladimir Putin, keeps widening, including in Asia, where Russia is charging that the transfer of Aegis Ashore constitutes a violation of the treaty signed between the two. This is a critique aimed also at Japan, despite Abe’s continued wooing of Putin.

US ties to Japan, especially in regard to geopolitics, are the exception, and many in Washington have so much on their plates that they prefer to assume that this relationship is in such good shape that attention is best turned elsewhere. Abe may be exploring autonomous policies toward China as well as Russia, but he is hugging Trump closely in the quest for denuclearization in North Korea and the Quad as the bulwark of the Indo-Pacific framework that both he and Trump are loudly touting.
The obsession with North Korea overshadows everything else in East Asia and shapes thinking about bilateral relations with all of the states active in that region.    

Washington DC exchanges have recently concerned Russo-North Korean relations and, especially keenly felt, the rising concern over the state of US-ROK relations. It has often been indirectly indicated that problems between Washington and Seoul are growing more serious, since speakers from both sides are inclined to highlight the importance of the alliance and to suggest that problems are manageable. Yet, since Moon agreed to the “three nos” and met with Xi in China, there are signs that tensions are being more openly acknowledged, leading to expectations that in the first months of 2018 they will be brought more unabashedly to the forefront.

Russia-North Korea

One topic discussed in DC was the significance of Russia’s wooing of North Korea despite its acquiescence to sanctions against the North. The obligatory theme of “ignore Russia only at your peril” arose along with commentary that Russia has a role not only useful in this crisis but potentially critical for launching talks and brokering a negotiated settlement once talks have begun, if the various parties are looking for a way out. The case for Russia’s importance rests on North Korea’s acceptance of it as the most trusted partner, which, in turn, credits Putin’s overtures to the North with cleverly forging closer links in preparation for diplomacy even as others fault those overtures for emboldening the North as it evades sanctions and accelerates its capacity to threaten regional and international security. Perceptions of Russia vary depending on expectations for the end game in this crisis and the motives behind Kim Jong-un’s actions. They also vary as a function of views of Russia’s real motives.

One unavoidable theme is how Russia’s North Korea policy relates to its policies toward other states. Is it a response out of pique to anger with the United States or a measure deemed critical for improving relations with that country at the next stage? Is policy aimed at competing with China, filling the vacuum it left as its ties to North Korea worsened, or complementary to China, as both share the same goals but may differ in their current willingness to challenge the United States?  Is it part of an overall strategy to improve ties with South Korea and Japan through eventual regional integration involving the Russian Far East and the Korean Peninsula or an acknowledgment of polarization in which Russia focuses on the old socialist bloc?

So far, the overlap in Moscow and Beijing’s objectives for the next stage of dealing with North Korea means that Russia is not defying China but acting consistently with its preferences. At the Security Council Russia defers to China, agreeing to sanctions once China has cut a deal with the United States, even if in the final maneuvering Russia adds demands of its own. The degree of consensus on support for the continued existence of North Korea, alarm at the US-led missile defense programs, and prioritization of geopolitical outcomes over denuclearization mean that Russia is unlikely to proceed in a manner that is not acceptable to China. This message may be clouded by Russian speakers who loath to suggest that Russia is not a fully autonomous force in this nuclear crisis.  When pressed, Russians acknowledge that China has a greater stake than Russia and that Russia’s deference in Northeast Asia is matched by Chinese deference in the Middle East, Ukraine, and, some add, Central Asia. Russia portrays itself as an autonomous force—a global power—but it walks a fine line when China is involved.

The Russian perspective on the nuclear crisis is deeply rooted in history, linking it to 125 years of Russian activism as a force on the Korean Peninsula, to the fact that it was Russia that created the DPRK, and that the essence of the crisis is the struggle against US hegemonism. Thus, North Korea is credited with fighting for a good cause and with not being a threat to Russia. The Chinese are assumed to be on the same side as Russia, while South Korea and Japan are US puppets in support of hegemonic behavior. While Russia is concerned about nuclear proliferation that would devalue Russia’s nuclear force and identity based on it, this is superseded by greater concern about the balance of power and the fate of the Korean Peninsula. With recent talk of a possible contingency due to US military action, Russia is invoking its own military build-up as evidence that it could intervene and help to shape the outcome, no less than if talks were resumed and Russia were to gain some sort of mediating role. If the United States took military action, Sino-Russian intervention is now on the table. Allied missile defense is attacked as aimed at China and Russia, not at North Korea.

Speakers acknowledge that Russia sees leverage over North Korea as a bargaining chip with the United States, implicitly anticipating that sanctions over Ukraine are in play in any future deal, i.e., only transforming overall US-Russian relations would lead to a breakthrough. North Korea is a venue too for Russia to boost its prestige as a great power. Moreover, the fate of North Korea is entwined with Russian identity as a defender of states traditionally reliant on it, supporter of sovereignty in world affairs, and barrier to regime change by those invoking human rights and the will of the people denied democratic choice. Not least consequential is insistence that Russia is defending multipolarity in Northeast Asia through a concert of powers in the priority area of security, now symbolized by the Six-Party Talks, which gained a special significance in Russia when it was assigned the responsibility of hosting the talks on a multilateral regional architecture in the fifth working group of 2007-08.

The optimistic scenario advanced by Russians is that North Korea is on the verge of completing its testing and is preparing to start negotiations with rational demands for sanctions relief and trust-building. The situation on the peninsula can, thus, be stabilized, as talks begin on the Northeast Asian regional order, including alliances and missile defenses. Economic benefits to North Korea would be well-received even if denuclearization is only a distant prospect. Russia would proceed with what some anticipate to be a 10-fold increase in trade by 2020, while pressing too for trilateral projects with South Korea. There is scant talk of stages of confidence building on the basis of North Korea removing or at least reducing much of its threat capacity. After all, the real problem is the United States; so North Korean moves are not a concern.

While DC audiences hear that Russia is the true champion of reunification, this is a conditional message on the assumption that the unified country will be autonomous rather than a “subordinate” to the United States. It is also assumed that China would not be able to impose its will, allowing Russia an independent arrangement with the new Korea. Left unsaid, perhaps, is that Russia strongly opposes unification of the type that South Koreans envision. Russia’s courting of North Korea is, in part, for the purpose of steering any moves toward unification onto a track favorable to its aims.

Russian speakers recognize today’s North Korean problem as the worst global crisis since the end of the Cold War. In a way, this is welcome, because only through such a crisis could Russia exert sufficient influence as a military power, a neighbor of North Korea, and a partner welcomed by the North to flex its muscles in East Asia. To the extent the crisis leads to a binary choice of war or diplomatic “compromise,” Russia welcomes this as a window of opportunity, where it can raise the costs of war and insert itself into the diplomatic maneuvering in a big way. One school of thought in Russia depicts the situation as a great power struggle, in which the interests of Russia as well as China and the United States must be satisfied. Another, dominated by a few specialists on North Korea and Northeast Asia, puts defense of North Korea as a priority, supporting its national interests. Both schools charge that Trump has not changed US “strategic patience” appreciably, drifting closer to war that would risk incalculable damage without accepting the need for a diplomatic compromise. There is little mention of a third school supportive of intensified, joint pressure.

When pressed on what kind of compromise Russia would like, beyond a double freeze of nuclear and missile tests for military exercises, Russians are hesitant to reveal what they have in mind. The pretense that Russia is a neutral observer is not credible. There is every indication that Russia would defer from keeping pressure on North Korea at a time when it had done little to justify reduced sanctions and concentrate on demands for the United States and its allies to offer more carrots. In their assertions that only the United States can change North Korean thinking and that this must be done with rewards not pressure, Russians are agreeable to North Korea remaining a nuclear state for the foreseeable future as it is rewarded for each concession, however slight, to stabilize the situation. Should Washington and its allies agree to talks, they would want to keep the pressure on Pyongyang, weighing serious moves toward denuclearization against measured incentives., but Moscow is not inclined to align itself with this approach. DC questions failed to elicit Russian answers to what could be expected once talks had begun after a freeze is in place.

On human rights, listeners heard that no amount of pressure works; so wait for an economic upsurge for a natural evolution, as in Chinese and Russian history, to new human rights policies. On US unilateralism, listeners were told that it does not work and only a great power concord (China, Russia, and the United States) can succeed. On North Korea’s future, the message delivered is that it serves a regional balance of power, favored by Russia as well as China, giving it priority over South Korea and in light of Russia’s weakness in gaining leverage elsewhere in Eurasia. Russia, it is said, grasps the polarization under way in Asia, well recognizes North Korea’s significance in this overall process, and is emboldened by Abe and Moon Jae-in continuing to woo Putin, as if they are desperate. Moon proposed “Korea’s new economic map” with projects appealing to Putin as well as Xi, while Abe is eagerly anticipating Putin’s reelection as the start of serious talks. Russia is doubling down on hopes that North Korea will become the gateway to multipolarity and its renewed leverage in Asia, at the expense of seeking common ground with others.

In response to insistence that only talks will work and North Korea is ready to agree to compromises favorable to all, critics acknowledged that creative ideas are needed and Russia could be constructive, but that many misperceive the history of efforts to cooperate with the North and the real intentions of that country, as best they can be discerned. Instead of faulting US overestimations of North Korean capabilities, one should recognize a history of underestimations. Instead of charging that sanctions have been tried and failed, one should acknowledge that they were inadequate and not well enforced until 2016-17.  Instead of blaming Washington for not earnestly seeking talks, one should credit it with eagerness to pursue a deal repeatedly over 25 years, Thus, the critics dismiss the narrative advanced by Russians and those in support of their arguments as unsupported by the actual historical evidence. This is the essence of exchanges on Russia’s role in North Korea in the last part of 2017.

South Korea-US Relations

Whether from Chinese, Russians, South Koreans, or even Americans, the message repeatedly conveyed to DC audiences is that US policy should shift toward dialogue rather than doubling down on pressure. The assumption is that North Korea seeks regime security and is now more likely to cut a deal with its weapons upgrade and its economic improvements. Even if it is not cooperative on steps that could lead to denuclearization, it is amenable to peaceful coexistence on the basis of mutually assured destruction now that its build-up has almost reached completion. South Koreans argue that Seoul should play the leading role in diplomacy. Proliferation would be stopped. A process of multilateral diplomacy would lead to a responsible Northeast Asia plus community, as one speaker argued, reaping economic rewards. Pyongyang would be content and cooperative as processes observed until 2007 would resume. Two very different US responses to these arguments could be discerned in the responses of DC speakers and audiences to such optimistic scenarios.

On the one hand, there is the hardline Trump administration position that talks are of no use unless Pyongyang accepts the principle of denuclearization. Otherwise, the result will be acceptance of the North as a nuclear power, relaxation of pressure with no other way to steer it in a favorable direction, and expectations that before long North Korea’s true aims to achieve unification by threats and coercion will be on the agenda with limited recourse to resist. Not only is diplomacy with the North of scant utility, forging a good atmosphere for working closely with the South is not prioritized. Thus, the US approach is a kind of byungjin too: maximum pressure for security on Pyongyang with Seoul expected to go along, and mounting pressure on Seoul for “free, fair, and reciprocal trade.” Wilbur Ross in one DC presentation listed both as priorities in Asia, also listing a free and open Indo-Pacific as a priority, which could implicate Seoul as well to the extent it means asking allies to take sides against China. While the strongest criticisms are reserved for North Korea, the charges in the area of trade refer to economic aggression, cheats, and rule breakers, while insisting that only bilateral agreements be negotiated—giving the larger US economy the edge in a game of chicken over who would lose the most from trade setbacks. When asked if a trade war might ensue, Ross argued that one has already proceeded for two decades with China and presumably longer with its neighbors. As to whether the North Korean issue has an impact on US-ROK trade talks, readers heard that there are two separate agendas but that a relationship can exist between them. Should US-ROK coordination on North Korea stumble, the KORUS FTA talks could suffer the consequences, is what listeners were apt to comprehend.

A second US response heard in think tank circles is to leave KORUS FTA alone or just to seek minor fixes without erroneously insisting that a trade deficit means that there is no win-win outcome. Moreover, it supports further exploration of North Korean thinking through dialogue, not confusing this with negotiations. Yet, this does not lead to optimism about US-ROK relations. There is concern about too rosy an attitude about North Korea’s real intentions and Chinese and Russian readiness to cooperate to stabilize the situation without exacting a heavy price, as well as of excessive pessimism about cooperation with Japan and about US motives apart from the Trump administration. The mantra for both Seoul and Washington is no distance between them but also no more tweets and disunity on the US side. While getting North Korea to the table is eagerly sought, and denuclearization is not a realistic starting point, it is assumed that the North’s interest is low for the kind of talks sought and that, even if serious talks get started, the North’s demands and lack of credibility in fulfilling commitments will make them very difficult. Thus, talks are not treated as the residual category that have to work since maximum pressure and red lines would lead to preemption, but are seen as of very low probability to do more than delay the arrival of an even worse crisis within a matter of years. The views of those who speak hopefully of talks are treated as steeped in idealism.

The alternative in this second response is maximum pressure—much more can be done—to make the North’s current path costlier and to shake the North Korean elite’s confidence in the regime, coupled with assurances of negotiations that offer the North a way forward with conditionality. The North’s intentions are viewed in a more negative light than by many in other states, and the urgency is great since the temptation will be high as the North is completing an ICBM attack force against the United States for military action. Thus, this US position also holds open the military option, blames China for continuing to supply North Korea oil, faults Russia’s actions for not being helpful, and differs sharply from those who seek a freeze for a freeze and have a relatively hopeful outlook on North Korea’s role once talks are launched.

After the vicissitudes of Trump’s first year complicating analysis in the DC area, since severely doubting US policy in East Asia requires a new mindset, there are signs that analysis is settling back into more predictable paths as 2018 is in sight. There should be much more fodder for think tank observers in the coming period.