Trumpian Strategy Options
ROK, Paper, Scissors: Cut the Tie That Binds

It’s time to revisit the utility of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Published on: January 10, 2018
Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.
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  • WigWag

    Excellent article by Adam Garfinkle and entirely correct to boot. The only addition I would make is that we should explicitly shut the nuclear umbrella that South Korea shelters under.

    Doing that would remove any and all incentives the demented leader of North Korea might harbor to launch nuclear-tipped ICBMs in our direction. South Korea would then have to make its own decision about whether to go nuclear. If they wanted the bomb we could sell them fifteen or twenty. If they preferred, they could surely develop there own in a couple of years.

    Our Asian problem mirrors our Europe problem more than Adam admits. The reality is that in both spheres we provide virtually all the muscle while our allies kvetch endlessly from the proverbial peanut gallery. The best way to encourage a South Korean/Japanese Alliance to keep both North Korea and China in check is to pull out of South Korea, reduce our troop presence in Japan and let our Asian allies fend for themselves when it comes to nuclear deterrence. If we follow this path, South Korea and Japan will resolve their differences in haste.

    It’s not about abandoning our strategic alliances, it’s about recalibrating them in a way that works for the times. By doing this we would be enhancing the prospects for the rule-based order that’s worked for us since the end of the Second World War, not diminishing those prospects.

    • Steve Smith

      I don’t see a ROK-Japan alliance coming out of our withdrawal. More likely that China would step into the void and, with Russia, work to create a new security and economic framework for the peninsula, establishing itself as the “honest broker.” Not easy to do, but who knows what might come out of it. And they might be able to co-opt the United Nations Command, which we will presumably leave behind when USFK departs.

      Don’t understand why you are so certain that, “South Korea and Japan will resolve their differences in haste.”

      If you are going to let these countries “fend for themselves,” you shouldn’t assume how they will go about it.

      Also, if we are going to leave South Korea, would we then acknowledge the end of the Korean War with some kind of treaty/non-aggression pact, or would we find it strategically preferable for the “war” to continue?

      • WigWag

        One problem, Steve, is that our nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan is of decreasing value in terms of deterrence. This is especially true for China but it is also relevant to North Korea. The likelihood that the United States would respond with nuclear weapons should China or North Korea launch a nuclear attack anywhere in Asia just doesn’t pass the smell test. Would we really invite a nuclear attack on Seattle, Portland or San Francisco by engaging in a nuclear attack against a state that hadn’t attacked us directly? It’s hard to believe. North Korea doesn’t have a second strike capability but China certainly does. If the American people actually understood that our policy was to put American cities at risk for total annihilation to protect cities in nations that millions of Americans believe are stealing our jobs with unfair trade practices, they simply wouldn’t put up with it.

        I understand that the antagonism between South Korea and Japan has deeper roots than most people assume, but faced with the reality of a nuclear-armed mad man in North Korea and an increasingly powerful regional bully in China, what choice other than a rapprochement would the two countries really have? Surely their historical grievances would pale in comparison to their fear of their belligerent neighbors.

        As for formally ending the Korean war and what it would imply, I’m not sure but as to your point about the optics about managing a repetitional crisis that withdrawal might engender, if there’s one thing we know about the current occupant of the Oval Office, its that he’s not overly concerned with optics.

        • Steve Smith

          The potential upside to what you and Garfinkle seem to be suggesting is that a withdrawal of US forces would change China’s strategic calculus on Korea. From that point forward, there would be no threat of a North Korean collapse leading to a unified Korea under US strategic control and with US troops on or rapidly able to move to the Yalu.
          But if we are going to do something that radical then why not negotiate a peace treaty and some sort of economic package cum nuclear freeze and monitoring with North Korea beforehand, so that the termination of the US-ROK alliance is seen as positive rather than giving the impression that we’re withdrawing under pressure.
          Or does Garfinkle, despite what he says, want quit South Korea in order to establish the conditions for US strikes on North Korea without US troops and dependents being “held hostage” to potential retaliation? It’s not clear to me from what he has written, and that’s why I say that I don’t understand what he is proposing.

    • Tom

      Side note: the Koreans do a much better job of actually providing for their defense than the Euros do. The ROK spends 2.6% of its GDP on defense (better than any of the NATO states, barring the US), and while Japan spends only 1% of its GDP on defense, I would mention that we did do our level best to neuter the country when we occupied it, to the point where it’s in their constitution (which we wrote for them) that they won’t declare war.

      • WigWag

        Thanks, Tom. The South Koreans face a much bigger threat than the Europeans do. Perhaps their historical experience with the Chinese and Japanese is also a motivation for robust defense spending. As for the Japanese, of course you’re right. But World War II was a long time ago. So much of our foreign policy and defense policy and so much of Japan’s foreign policy and defense policy has its roots in the Second World War and the Cold War. It’s time for a re-think; don’t you think?

        • Tom

          It is, but such things take time.

  • Steve Smith

    How is it that Garfinkle takes so many words to say so little?

    He says: “In sum, the abrogation of the U.S.-ROK alliance would free up U.S. military options in a way that could deter North Korean brinksmanship and have positive effects on China’s willingness to press the regime as well.”

    What military options?

    Later in the same paragraph, Garfinkle says, “It [abrogation of the US-ROK alliance] would certainly be a better course of action than a preemptive U.S. attack on North Korea, which would destroy the alliance the wrong way, get hundreds of thousands of innocents killed (including, possibly, in Japan as well as on the Korean Peninsula), and create a multifaceted after-attack crisis for which no preparations to manage are in readiness.”

    So if he is opposed to a US attack on North Korea, then what military options is he talking about? Did I somehow miss his enumeration of these options?

    Garfinkle summarizes his notional “Trumpian” approach to Korea thus:

    “So what is this Trumpian way forward on Korea that might be in prospect? It is as simple at one level as it is stark: Abrogate (or radically renegotiate) the terms of the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance, thereby decoupling the bitter politics of the Korean peninsula from the military-security interests of the United States. Instead, aim policy toward the explicit goal of reunification under the aegis of the South, with great power concert endorsement of the peninsula’s non-nuclear weapons status.”

    So we terminate the US-ROK alliance and pull our troops out and THEN start working to reunite Korea under South Korea leadership? Now how, exactly, would we go about that? I don’t understand what Garfinkle is actually proposing here.

    • FriendlyGoat

      It’s probably just a veiled way of admitting that there really are no military options.

      • Steve Smith

        Except that these “options” are the reason he gives for proposing a huge shift in US Korea policy–the abrogation of the US-ROK treaty and withdrawal of US forces. If he is admitting that these options don’t really exist, then what is the rationale for his proposal to quit South Korea? He gives no other reason.

        • FriendlyGoat

          Yeah, I know. I’m in the same camp as you in wondering whether any of the article makes sense.

  • AbleArcher

    Seems the US-ROK alliance is more important than the US-German alliance, or probably all of NATO. Some European states are nuclear. Obviously France and the UK. Neither Japan nor South Korea are nuclear. Russia and China are nuclear, however. Russia and especially the regime in Beijing have made sure that the Russo-Installed Kim family went nuclear, too. Pakistan too.

    Seems the only serious way we can talk about ending these alliances in East Asia, at any degree, would be to support nuclear proliferation to the democracies of the region. Certainly a popular idea in South Korea by the opinion polls. We know that the Kim regime invaded SK in 1950 using Russian provided tanks, and they want to do it again. Can you imagine if they do invade again, only this time they succeed and absorb that tech and wealth?

    • CheckYourself

      The Kim dictatorship wants nukes for two reasons.
      1. Guarantee for the regime.
      2. When it’s capable with a secure second-strike then it will be able to invade South Korea and nobody will be able to help without risking their own homeland.

      We would definitely need to give South Korea, possibly Japan, some nuclear weapons directly or help them a lot in their programs before we leave. It’s the only sensible thing to do if we were actually going to pull up stakes completely anyway.

    • KremlinKryptonite

      I’ve lived in Korea for a long time now, and reading this piece, as well as many others like it in the last couple of years, particularly by Doug Bandow, makes me feel like I’m living in 1949 and early 1950. Why do I say that? This is how it all started. Words. What am I talking about? Well, from the day that he was installed by Stalin, Kim II Sung spoke of taking over the rest of the peninsula using force.

      Stalin was apprehensive about this for years. Obviously, he feared it could potentially bring a major conflict to East Asia, and even possibly pit the USSR directly against the US. On what would turn out to be the eve of war, in late 1949, not even Mao was particularly excited about the idea of Kim II Sung invading the South. Mao was preoccupied with taking over Taiwan. So what changed Mao’s and Stalin’s mind?

      12 January 1950….doomsday for Korea.
      Dean Acheson’s speech that day clearly delineated Korea, or rather distinguished the peninsula, from the rest of East Asia (think islands like Guam and all of Japan) from America’s western pacific defense perimeter.

      This was sufficient to change the minds of Mao and especially Stalin – The North Korean invasion of South Korea was unlikely to bring the US into direct conflict with Kim and his backers, or so the two thought. Consequently, Stalin provided Kim with even more Russian military hardware, including the tanks needed for the invasion. Mao sent 75,000 ethnic Korean PLA troops from China back to Korea (well armed of course). Note: those 75,000 were sent in early 1950, and they are not counted as part of the total hundreds of thousands sent later to save the Kim regime.

      Words really do have consequences. In such an uncertain world, it’s better to have a Donald Trump tweeting about the size of nuclear buttons to rebuff threats from the Kim regime rather than a Secretary of State Acheson (today’s Tillerson?) basically forsaking the entire peninsula and putting minds at ease in Moscow and Beijing about the potential trouble of an invasion.

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      • Otis

        KK – I’ve appreciated your thoughtful and well-informed posts in the past. Given your first-hand experience with Korea, I’d be intrigued to hear more from you about this article. At the very least, I appreciate Garfinkle’s ability to think deeply and creatively on this nest of issues, as well as his willingness to countenance (very much against his natural proclivities) the possibility that Trump just might have the right instincts on Korea.

        Is Garfinkle right that the ROK can defend itself against any DPRK military threat except the nuclear one? If so, then can’t the ROK simply level the playing field by going nuclear itself? And wouldn’t the scenario Garfinkle outlines give China both a carrot and a stick for finally cracking down on the DPRK – the carrot of a U.S. military withdrawal from the peninsula combined with the stick of the ROK , as well as Japan and – what the heck? – Taiwan developing their own nuclear deterrents?

        • KremlinKryptonite

          And I appreciate your kind words. In both my personal and professional opinion, I would have few problems with South Korea going nuclear..when they take over full control of their own forces, that is. They are in transition of doing that only now, finally. Withdrawing US forces has actually been on the table since the W. years (Rich Armitage was used to send the message), but only in the event of reunification and the denuclearization of the entire peninsula. Hmm. The regime in Beijing is not excited to have a unified, democratic Korea as an appendage. With or without US forces here. Then there would be the whole issue of reversing 68 years of policy supporting the Kim regime. A tradition started by the supreme being, Mao, of course. Wink.

          Can the ROK take care of itself in the event of another conventional DPRK attack? No, probably not. I would also say, “don’t let anyone fool you into believing otherwise.”

          South Korea’s military is predominately a conscript army. The Air Force and Navy are of rather good quality. As far as the army goes, young men are conscripted for two years and they are on call for an additional eight (officially), although it’s actually in perpetuity. Koreans dread this time. It interrupts their plans for university or a trade school, and a huge percentage of those with girlfriends lose them at some point during the two years. The training is so-so, and their hearts are not in it. Koreans know this. They even make sitcoms about their conscript army. Guys just sitting around eating cup noodles and talking about video games and drinking in itaewan. It’s pretty accurate too. Bumbling around during training.

          I have much more confidence in the special forces, pilots, and other specialized rolls. They receive top-notch training, they have top-notch technology, and they are there because they want to be. Its their career. Of course, it’s also true that the DPRK army is a conscript army, and not nearly as well equipped. There are three wild cards.
          1. North Koreans are conscripted for a full decade and do nothing but train, not to mention they’ll be fighting for food.
          2. Outside assistance from Russia and/or China on DPRKs behalf. Will they do it again? Who knows for sure? Perhaps they themselves don’t even know until the time comes. We know that they did it before. Certainly have to plan for it.
          3. WMDs (not nuclear) Nuclear weapons are highly unlikely to be used. The regime itself hints at this, but it’s also fairly common sense. The WMDs used at the outset of war on the peninsula would be chemical weapons. They would need to be used very early on when North Korean planners have the clearest image of the battlefield, as that will become foggy very rapidly. Naturally, chemical weapons will be used to offset some of the significant advantages enjoyed by South Korea and whoever helps.

          US forces have the best chemical protective gear in the world. South Koreans have access to such quality gear, but they have little idea how to use it well. I have met numerous young Korean conscripts who’ve served their time, yet they did not know how to put on a gas mask, or terrifyingly thought that it’s as simple as pulling it over their faces, let alone a full suit. By stark contrast, the KPA regularly trains for chemical warfare, and even manufactures decent quality chemical protective gear of their own.

      • Paul Lies

        Yes it was miscommunication that put their minds at ease. Acheson in 1950 putting Mao and Stalin at ease about supporting Kim’s war. In 1990 it was the US ambassador to Iraq telling Saddam that the US had no opinion on Arab Arab conflict, leading him to believe the Kuwait invasion was go without incident.

      • TPAJAX

        That’s so interesting. So, Mao hadn’t really decided on what to do about Kim II Sung until 1950. I simply figured that he was planning to assist him whenever he got the green light from Stalin on the attack plan.

        • KremlinKryptonite

          Definitely not. Mao was absolutely uncertain as to what would happen, and what he was going to do about it in 1949. Youll do well to see Mao’s involvement in Korea through a Sino-Soviet lens. That is, Mao’s and Stalin’s burgeoning alliance becoming public at about the same time, and each trying to figure out how the alliance is going to help their own causes. The story really starts for those two on 30 June 1949.

          That was the date that Mao described what is today called the “lean to one side” approach. Mao announced the Sino-Soviet alliance and was hopeful that the alliance would allow him to support Stalin’s International efforts at spreading communism, allowing China to help wherever and whenever it can, and to raise itself up in the process. That’s precisely what a middle power would do. However, so few people get it right when they look at how Chinese viewed the cold war more broadly.

          Chinese viewed the cold war as a struggle within the west between the USSR and the US. As far as they were concerned, Stalin was just another white, European dude, to put it bluntly. Moscow was not in the Far East, or orient if you will. They certainly did not view it as a struggle between East and West. They viewed it as an internal, western issue, and that issue simply had global implications because the West was the most powerful part of the world. They picked a horse and they supported it.

          At the same time, in 1949, Kim II Sung was trying to convince Stalin that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was revolutionary. In other words, he was trying to convince Stalin that it would be super easy to use military force, that they wouldn’t have to face America, and that the South Koreans would welcome them with open arms. Whether Kim knew this to be untrue and simply lied to Stalin, or whether he really didn’t know any better, is still unknown. What is known as that Stalin did not completely believe Kim, and his mind did not change until Achesons comments assured him. Then, Stalin told Kim to consult with Mao, really to lean on him, because Stalin refused to give concrete guarantees about direct Soviet involvement.

  • Kenneth Currie

    No, Adam, it’s not time. Simplistic analysis. As usual.

  • Douglas Levene

    Very thought-provoking article, but I strongly suspect that going down this road would lead to both Japan and South Korea arming themselves with thousands of nuclear-tipped ICBMs, which both are capable of doing on short notice. I suppose that would be worse for China than for us, but I’m not sure it would be a net plus for the US.

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