Washington Insights, Vol. 7, No. 5

No topic stirred as much interest in DC think tanks as the US-Japan-South Korean triangle. In the background loomed North Korea, leading to overlapping interest in the Sino-North Korean-US triangle. The driving force remained Donald Trump, keeping on edge US relations with each of the other three countries. Naturally, the latter triangle was seen also through the prism of Sino-US relations amid the rapidly changing vicissitudes of the trade war. Finally, interest was also shown in the budding ROK-Indian relationship. Russia in East Asia was not much noticed.

Trump’s conduct of foreign policy was generally given a pass by Republicans despite skepticism over his summits with Kim Jong-un, his unilateral imposition of tariffs willy-nilly, and his servile approach to Vladimir Putin. Only the Ukraine extortion scandal leading to the impeachment inquiry and the Trump decision to pull US troops abruptly out of Syria leading to chaos and the abandonment of a US ally have sullied Trump’s image with security-minded Republicans. This is likely to reverberate in his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, with whom an agreement based on a “small deal” could arouse a new wave of accusations of selling out allies and failing to defend US national interests. The habit of glossing over Trump’s absence of security reviews and of making on-the-spot decisions with momentous effect appears to be fading among Republicans. Yet, fear of speaking out keeps most of these politicians unwilling to state their misgivings in a manner that they could be widely heard and draw Trump’s intemperate upbraiding. If the Ukraine case was a warm-up and the Syrian case a turning point, the North Korean case may well be a breaking point for the security-conscious Republicans who have held their tongues. 

The US-Japan-South Korea triangle

The Korean Peninsula was on the minds of many in DC, especially after what was viewed as a dispute over history turned in July into a trade war and then in August into a threat to the US alliance framework in Northeast Asia. Exchanges juxtaposed Korean, Japanese, and US views of the trouble and what could be done. All looked for a ray of hope, but many saw just illusions.

A Korean perspective found hope in a new regional framework to bridge differences, seeing promise in North Korean economic integration and in overcoming or bypassing the Sino-US polarization under way. As the situation in the Middle East grows more dangerous, Seoul has an opportunity to capitalize on new patterns of energy cooperation to build trust. In 2011, it was said that a deal was nearly concluded for a pipeline from the Russian Far East through North Korea and down to South Korea. Whether it failed because Lee Myung-bak as a conservative hesitated, Kim Jong-il died and the succession took time, the US shale revolution promised a cheaper source of gas, or Dmitry Medvedev was being eclipsed by Vladimir Putin as a new election campaign began, the dream persisted in Seoul that such a plan could be a panacea—creating an energy community that would evolve into a broader sense of community, ending Pyongyang’s sense of isolation and gradually its insecurity, and fostering cooperation capable of forestalling a new cold war. It would diversify energy risk, even more a goal when Moon Jae-in revived hopes for the plan in 2017. Moon clung to it even in the troubling summer of 2019.

The DC discussion of this optimistic scenario pointed to several problems. If China was bound to be the primary market for increased energy imports in East Asia, why would it defer to South Korea as the hub of more energy routes? If North Korea is hostile to integration schemes likely to make it dependent on South Korea and is already alienating Seoul, why would investors and politicians be confident enough in it to invest heavily? What in Putin’s overtures to the North provides an indication that he is eager to build the necessary trust with South Korea or, for that matter, with the international community? Having finally agreed to participate in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy, if in limited economic ways, having led the world in importing shale gas from the US, and also seriously contemplating joining the US in protecting ships in the Strait of Hormuz, how does South Korea expect to balance ties to Washington and Beijing? Finally, in Moon’s decision to pull out of GSOMIA with Japan, is he not acting at cross purposes to the US strategy in the region, whether to North Korea, the FOIP, or the pressure campaign vs. China?

If skepticism about Moon’s prospects abounded, skepticism about Trump’s handling of East Asia was also pronounced. At two levels, he was failing, the audience heard: In the three-party setting of the two Koreas and the US, and in the six-party context. Some had inflated hopes in the aftermath of the Singapore summit of June 2018 that the triangular framework would be adequate to build momentum, but after the Hanoi summit and even more after Trump met Kim at Panmunjom, the mood has turned sour even for them. Much attention is now focused on the improved missile technology visible in the North’s new tests. Some are asking who proliferated to North Korea. Others are asking how far Beijing and Moscow will go to brush denuclearization aside in order to curry favor with Pyongyang and put the onus on Washington. Some speculated that in the spring North Korea debated what to do after the failure in Hanoi, and what was decided is to test missiles, boost ties to the two powers sympathetic to its strategy, and put pressure on Trump, who cannot stand the thought of acknowledging failure. In the triangle, Moon is in the biggest hole, to the point it was suggested that he ended GSOMIA to use the “Japan card” at home. Abe may have used the “South Korea card” as well to distract from his problems. Then, Trump is blamed in DC for “nonchalance” toward Northeast Asia, fueling trouble when he is not standing by as things grow worse. There is plenty of blame to go around, but in DC Trump is the biggest villain. When the prospect of a Trump-Kim deal was aired, as if that is the one optimistic possibility, it was dismissed as an illusion, for which neither leader has any realistic strategy.

A third viewpoint was that Japan-ROK relations could get back on track by setting aside what has transpired over the past year. Yet, a Korean voice sought to go back only to June, sticking with the Moon historical agenda and court ruling, while Japanese thinking turned to something more fundamental, appealing to the precedents of 1998 and 2015 when Korean leaders agreed to forward-looking relations. Both sides are viewed as regarding their dignity as impugned. The summer of 2019 is seen as a turning point from which recovery will be more difficult than before. Conspiracy theories are being aired, especially in South Korea, suggesting that Trump was forewarned by Abe of his planned trade war with Moon and, perhaps, the joint intention is to take down Samsung and force cooperation with Huawei (notably by LG) to be halted. Given the politics of grievance bursting out everywhere, some concluded that DC analysts had to take a new approach, recognizing the power of conspiracy theories. Another issue raised is that the US may press for intermediate ballistic missiles to be deployed in Japan and South Korea, which could mark another turning point in 2019 after Hanoi and the G20 summit and its aftermath.

The Trump administration position in the face of the Japan-ROK dispute was aired before an audience in DC. It calls for regaining the spirit of trilateral cooperation while warning of the risks should tensions escalate and already with Seoul’s decision to halt GSOMIA. At risk is a heralded asymmetrical advantage of alliances in the face of rising threats from Russia and China, given the US view of Japan as the cornerstone and South Korea as the lynchpin in Indo-Pacific security. Of apparent concern is the fear that Seoul does not recognize that regional security is the key to stability, not national respect. As the nature of the danger from North Korea has morphed from an attack across the DMZ to a broader regional and bilateral threat to the US, the nature of the US-ROK alliance seems to be changing in ways that both sides have been slow to grasp. The US outlook has shifted to a broad regional strategy, to which Japan has joined through cooperation in Southeast and South Asia as well as collective security in the East China Sea. Above all, China has risen in strategic priority, leading to US prioritization of Japan as the indispensable ally even as South Korea strives to straddle the Sino-US hiatus. Despite the official line that both allies are on board in prioritizing denuclearization, understanding the risks from China, and opposing the authoritarian challenge (including from Russia’s military return to Northeast Asia) to the rules-based order, insistence that the two are natural partners and seek the same order ring hollow.

The ambivalent message is that trilateral defense engagement is proceeding well with exercises and consultations, such as Shangri-La, but that political disputes hurt both sides as well as the United States. The clear US position is that history disputes should be insulated from security. While Seoul insists that it did so until Tokyo in July escalated the dispute and Tokyo argues that it did so until Seoul pulled out of GSOMIA, Washington appears to have little patience for such claims, but the fact that it repeatedly warned Seoul that stopping GSOMIA would be bad for the US and would only serve the interests of North Korea, China, and Russia puts the onus on Seoul. This compounds the US viewpoint that it is Seoul, not Tokyo, that seriously misapprehends the security threats in Northeast Asia and that Seoul has been less forward-looking on security ties.

What is Washington doing to put Japan-ROK relations and triangularity back on track? It is now seeking a commitment from both for meaningful dialogue aimed at solving problems, rather than rehashing grievances. There is also a desire for the US not to be blind-sided by decisions such as pulling out of GSOMIA. One test is to collectively appreciate the threat of North Korea’s ongoing missile tests, although one wonders how the US side can expect that when Trump is loath to recognize the threat. Another test is to put sufficient US pressure on Abe and Moon to make it difficult for them to ignore, but again Trump’s aloofness and lack of effort to arrange a trilateral in Osaka when Japan-ROK relations were poised for a downward spiral did not help. Yet, the impression was of quiet but active diplomacy to prod the two sides but not to mediate. One more test is to recognize the cost of losing GSOMIA and prospects of further military and intelligence cooperation: in missile defense, anti-submarine warfare, maritime security, cyber defense, space defense, etc. Although some optimism was expressed about compensating for the loss of full-scale US-ROK military exercises due to Trump’s goodwill gesture to Kim Jong-un, the idea that computer simulations compensate for readiness drew some skepticism. So too did insistence that Tokyo and Seoul are aligned on China and the South China Sea as well as North Korea with only nuanced differences on some specifics. Putting the best face on the current situation while raising the urgency of it leaves some in DC perplexed.

The Sino-North Korean-US triangle

Clarity about China’s aspirations in diplomacy with North Korea has long been sought in DC, and recently, in the midst of the upsurge in diplomacy, an exchange proved informative. The Chinese position has had considerable consistency, listeners were told, but it has evolved over as many as four stages. In stage 1 to the early 2000s China regarded denuclearization as a bilateral issue for the US and North Korea, but it was drawn into four-party talks in 1996 when North Korea called for an end to the armistice against the backdrop of the Taiwan Strait crisis and seemed to be ready to use the crisis for provocative moves. In these circumstances, China agreed to four-party talks to replace the fragile armistice with a peace mechanism unconnected to the nuclear issue, which was being handled through the 1994 Agreed Framework. Washington and Seoul had been alarmed, and Beijing began to give attention to what such a mechanism would entail, but the Taiwan crisis soon ended, and the urgency was over despite Pyongyang’s intentions. For Beijing the armistice was seen as outdated; it was inclined to have four parties discuss peace.

In stage 2 from 2002 through 2008 the nuclear risk had grown, eclipsing talk of a peace-building mechanism. For the first time China was directly engaged in denuclearization talks, but it eyed an opportunity to bring attention back to the question of what kind of peace should ensue. In the Joint Statement of September 19, 2005 drafted by China a linkage was made, described in Chinese as “he-he” (peace-nuclear). Beijing saw the two as inseparable, and both Washington and Pyongyang agreed. A fundamental question arose at the October 2007 North-South summit over how many states should negotiate a peace regime, as the two Koreas referred to three or four, clearly excluding Japan and Russia but also leaving China’s role in doubt. The issue had been left ambiguous in the Joint Statement as the “directly related parties.” Pyongyang seemed to want a bilateral arrangement with Washington, but in 2007 it allowed Seoul to have a role. The fifth working group of the Six-Party Talks in 2007-08 gave Moscow the role of chair to draw up regional architecture encompassing peace and security, but that group made no headway. Beijing remained inclined to a four-party process eyeing a peace mechanism, but it had to wait.

In stage 3 from 2009 Washington was obsessed with denuclearization, setting aside talks on a peace regime, while Beijing bided its time while firming up economic relations with Pyongyang. It was dissatisfied with Lee Myung-bak for turning his back on talks with the North and sought a different approach from the Obama administration too, but when Kim Jong-un doubled down on nuclear weapons at the expense of diplomacy with all parties, that led China to prioritize the nuclear issue too, including sanctions to bring Kim to the negotiating table. This did not signify a loss of interest in a peace mechanism, but it recognized that such a goal would have to wait. In 2017 Beijing showed its peak concern that the nuclear issue was growing dangerous and must be addressed through sanctions to reassure Washington until Kim Jong-un was ready to deal.

Stage 4 in 2018-19 has emboldened China to refocus not only on a peace mechanism but also on a permanent peace regime, formalizing the security arrangements for the peninsula and for the region. An end of war declaration would start the peace process, which, as recognized at the Singapore summit, would proceed in parallel with the denuclearization process. Chinese are giving more thought to the peace process, not as something that can only unfold after there is substantial movement toward denuclearization, but as a necessary precondition to make such momentum possible. The September 18, 2018 military agreement at the Pyongyang summit is viewed as a step in the right direction. A peace treaty is anticipated, even if US commentators warned that the US would not sign one with a nuclear North Korea. The impression some have that North Korea has offered itself to the US as a bulwark against China is vigorously dismissed as inconceivable. Instead, what is envisioned is a set of arrangements that promise a durable, new security order on the peninsula and in the region. This requires a set of legal documents, listeners were told. They would be between the two Koreas as well as include China and the US, a 2+2 process. The UN would become involved, giving Russia and Japan a secondary role in that context and paving the way to replace the existing UN command. Critical to this agenda is a shift in the US approach to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, which Trump may endorse. Along with other parties, Beijing is waiting for Trump to decide what kind of “small deal” with Kim Jong-un is agreeable, which would open the door to negotiations over peace architecture.

China appears to expect North Korean pressure on the US to force what China also desires: a pullback in the US security presence in South Korea and perhaps beyond. Without agreeing to a “peace” plan acceptable to Pyongyang, Washington would have no chance for denuclearization. Yet, Chinese may not actually expect denuclearization to result: Just relieving pressure from the provocations North Korea may undertake might suffice to get the desired pullback. The Chinese claim is that North Korea seeks reassurance through a balance of power, and it is resorting to a nuclear weapons build-up to correct the existing imbalance. This ignores the North’s capacity to wreak enormous damage on the Seoul metropolitan area, which has been a balancing factor for a long time. It also ignores the drawdown that could extend to Japan if US advanced weaponry nearby is viewed as a source of disequilibrium in the face of North Korea’s outdated arms apart from those associated with the nuclear weapons program and delivery systems. Some queries from the US put in doubt its acceptance of this approach and also any legal approval from Congress for it.

Chinese stress the importance of convincing generals in North Korea that security is assured, for which a non-aggression treaty would be a starting point. They also explain that Washington can sign an end-of-war declaration without fear that it would lead to the removal of US troops or the end of the US-ROK alliance. Careful wording can allay such concerns. Above all, unlike in the 1990s bilateral and four-party process and in the 2000s multilateral and six-party process, this new cycle from 2018 reverts to a four-party process and puts the peace process in the forefront even if the Chinese narrative insists that it proceed in parallel with a denuclearization process. In response the DC audience expressed doubt that the effect of sanctions relief required for the trust-building would be irreversible unless there were a snapback provision. In light of worsening US-Russian and Sino-US relations as well as improved North Korean relations with China and Russia, the atmosphere of 2017 is not repeatable. Another doubt raised is that the peace process being proposed has far-reaching implications for Russia, which previously was chair of this quest, and Japan, which could be deeply affected; yet these two would remain on the sidelines in the envisioned four-party process. Is this exclusion realistic or is it an effort to weaken the US-Japan alliance as well as the inevitable blow to the US-ROK alliance?

The Sino-US downward spiral

For some, the Japan-ROK tiff was regarded as a distraction from the bilateral relationship of far-reaching consequence, which was also in free-fall. Sino-US relations rode a roller coaster of highs and lows depending on Trump’s day-to-day decisions: to threaten tougher sanctions or to suggest that a grand agreement is looming. If Trump’s tweets repeatedly conveyed false hopes or ominous warnings in accord with his mood of the moment, the underlying reality was mostly perceived in DC as irreversible. Deals might be struck to check the downward momentum for a time, but they had scant prospect of reversing the gathering storm. The number of imminent dangers to the relationship kept growing: Huawei and IT, Hong Kong, Taiwan, missile build-ups and defenses, North Korea, the South China Sea, and of course differences over trade. Ideas were exchanged on how Chinese perceived the US debate on this relationship and how the US side understood the Chinese attitudes about it and the way they were being inculcated.

Three shortcomings were identified in the Chinese approach to the unanticipated downslide in Sino-US relations: 1) the shadow of the narrative about why the Soviet Union collapsed; 2) the inclination to find structural explanations while misinterpreting Trump’s impact; and 3) failure to overcome deepening Chinese censorship to permit a proper debate.  Chinese narratives have doubled down under Xi Jinping on the rhetoric that Gorbachev was a traitor, the US plotted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it has the same thing in mind for China. Such a simplistic, wrong-headed outlook on US relations with both the Soviet Union and China preempts other arguments, while distracting from pragmatic reasoning about how to overcome ongoing Sino-US differences. The US is assumed not only to have a containment strategy, but a collapse strategy, at play in Hong Kong at this time, according to this conspiracy theory brought further to the fore in a hardline interpretation of the current trade war, which at present is difficult to counter inside China. Yet, many anticipated an interim agreement, as was reached in October, to give Trump something to brag about to his rural base and to relieve Xi of threatened tariffs.

The second shortcoming exposed in DC discussions of Chinese views on the Sino-US divide is in conflict with the first, which relies on the notion that the US is under a national identity spell obsessed with demonizing without justification a competitor. Instead, this structural approach is essentially a zero-sum outlook on economics and security, holding that China’s rise infringes on US interests. Thus, the US goal is to stop China’s economy from growing and to divide China to keep its power from expanding. In this structural explanation, Obama was not soft on China but the architect of a containment strategy in support of domestic interests and Trump is not a lone tweeter acting on poorly informed impulse but another spokesperson for such interests. Such arguments deflect any blame for China and play on popular priority for China’s economy, as if an outside force is striving to block the rightful rise of the people, not the abuses of the leadership. This demonization of the US builds on decades of similar rhetoric.

The third shortcoming found in China’s approach is tightening censorship eliminating the chance of a debate over the causes of the downturn in Sino-US relations and possible paths forward. The failings of the Soviet Union to debate reform and foreign policy as a cause of its collapse have not been discussed in recent times, perhaps since that line of debate would reflect poorly on China’s top-down, directed narrative. Now, the situation in Hong Kong is being covered in this fashion, as if there was no Sino-UK agreement to guarantee “one country, two systems” and only China has the sovereign right to proceed in Hong Kong without interference or criticism. The demonstrating populace is treated as manipulated by US strategists seeking to weaken China without a debate in China attentive to the facts. Taking this stance, Chinese are following a similar playbook as the Russians on issues of containment, outside interference, and the nature of a new cold war. In this way, the ongoing Sino-US rhetorical battle is helping to draw Beijing and Moscow even closer. That alliance-like relationship is no longer doubted in DC.

Also discussed in DC was how Chinese view differences of opinion in the US about China and the way to proceed in Sino-US relations. Naturally, informed Chinese tried to follow the July-August reports of letters in the US press by doves and hawks. They asked: is this a generational divide, a divide rooted in differences between the political parties, or a divide based on fields of expertise and experience in covering China? One response was that the Chinese trying to find answers lack information about what each group is saying. They know too little about Trump to recognize his impact on the debate. The generational divide argument may have gained the greatest currency. It is not easy to differentiate US views of China without explaining what criticisms each group is leveling against Chinese behavior—something Chinese leaders obscure with selective censorship. Overall, Chinese have grown pessimistic about finding positive views.

The Chinese outlook on the US has been differentiated into the hardliners stirred by patriotic appeals, the Internet networkers who aggravate those appeals, the pragmatists looking for ways forward, and the dissenters silenced from speaking their mind in open forums. Those who have studied in the United States or have family there tend to be in the last two groupings, but some arrived as hardliners and were active in organized networks of them. The case against the US centers on unprovoked transformation to a containment policy in 2018-19 when China only sought win-win relations. Yet, DC respondents argued that a cumulative process had driven the US response from long before Trump arrived and that China’s image has suffered recently from its policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and South Korea, among others. If Chinese fail to understand the reciprocity in relations, their criticisms of the US will seem one-sided and not serve dialogue.

South Korean-Indian relations

In one DC seminar ROK relations with India were described both as a key part of the New Southern Policy and as a way to reduce the exposure to risk. Complementary to India’s Act East policy, it is visualized as an opportunity, which requires much promotion by both sides. After relations were established in 1973, a partnership established in 2012 and upgraded beyond trade and investment to security in 2015, Moon’s decision to launch in 2017 the New Southern Policy and Modi’s reelection in 2019 offer an unprecedented chance to make a big leap forward, but what are the prospects? Both sides speak hopefully, e.g., Moon places relations with India as well as ASEAN on a level with Seoul’s traditional four partners—the US, China, Japan, and Russia—and in the Moon-Modi June summit a target of $50 billion was set for trade in 2030 versus the current level of $20 billion. Listeners heard talk of growing convergence between the two economies and optimism from no historical or territorial issues that need to be addressed. As “innovative Korea” with its world-class hard power joins with “digital India” with its booming soft power, a combined manufacturing base is in sight. Horizons are broadening, too, as Seoul views East Asia as extending from the Russian Far East to India and New Delhi does as well.

High hopes are confounded by sober challenges. Seen from India, Seoul has been too passive, especially trailing Japan with only 1/7 the FDI and also falling behind China, whose FDI is likely to climb markedly. Bilateral trade has been stagnant, and Seoul has not yet launched a showcase project such as Japan’s Mumbai to Delhi high-speed railway. Seen from South Korea, India has not lowered barriers to trade, including non-tariff ones. What should be done? In economics, the building block for the relationship, notable progress may occur when Moon and Modi meet in October. Yet, talk of the two defending the liberal economic order together defies reality. The notion that Korea could draw on its saemaul village modernization history to assist India is also far-fetched. Even more of a stretch is the idea that India, which refused US pressure to pull its embassy from North Korea, would join South Korea in breaking the North’s isolation. Neither side would admit to embracing the other to hedge against their common neighbor China and to fully accept the FOIP strategy, although Seoul has now begun to report its willingness to play a role and India is the prime target, if mostly a qualified participant.