Korea’s Trump Quandary – It’s Time to Revisit Our Regional Strategy

President-elect Trump views Japan and South Korea as free-riders of American led regional order
President-elect Trump views Japan and South Korea as free-riders of American led regional order

The Rise of Donald Trump and America-First Policy

84%. According to the New York Times, that was the odds of Hillary Clinton winning the hotly contested 2016 Presidential election. Few expected the erratic real estate mogul to be seated as the owner of the Oval Office, the leader of the Free World. Now that the impossibility has prevailed, the world is bracing itself for the consequences.

Donald Trump’s election victory came as an unpleasant surprise especially to America’s allies, given that the President-elect accused them as being “free-riders” during his campaign. Mr Trump called for a switch to “America-first” policy: “I will return us to a timeless principle. Always put the interest of the American people and American security above all else …… replace randomness with purpose ... chaos with peace.”

Plausible at first sight, such statement brings up the question of whether the US will honor its security commitment to allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. American allies in East Asia are especially concerned, as Mr. Trump specified Korea and Japan as “free-riders”, nonchalantly commenting (when asked what he would do if Japan is attacked): “ (I will) sit home and watch Sony television”.

It is unlikely that President Trump would actually remove American presence from the region entirely—it is more realistic to assume that his rhetoric is intended to nudge South Korea and Japan to “pay their dues.” Nonetheless, given deep American involvement in East Asia over the last seven decades, even the slightest of disengagement can be problematic. Korea especially has long relied on American military for its security; in the face of North Korea’s ever-menacing nuclear program, it is about time Korea considers alternative policies to prepare for the future.

During his campaign, President-elect Trump vacillated between carrots and sticks over North Korea and its unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un. During his interview with CBS earlier this year, he said he would get China to make him disappear. Asked when if he meant assassination, he replied: “there are worse things.” Then in June, he reversed his stance, suggesting that he is up for a “hamburger talk” with Kim to discuss nuclear disarmament. Regarding his ally in the South, he flatly demanded that South Korea pay more for US troops stationed in the country and otherwise expect them to be removed. Even if it does not come down to such drastic decision, it is highly possible that he will reduce the number of troops and arms deployed to Korea, if not worse.

These comments do not amount to a specific policy roadmap, yet they should alarm policy makers in Korea for two reasons. First, the Korean army is highly dependent on American forces; the U.S. currently possesses wartime operational control of South Korean troops, and responses to North Korean provocations go through the Combined Forces Command. Second, fruitful dialogue with the North is likely to come from joint American and Korean effort, rather than unilateral approach from Korea.

Balance Between Independence and Cooperation

To deal with the issue of military dependence, Korea should remain within the current system of US-led deterrence until it enhances its own capability to an adequate level. Retrieving wartime operational control—as many suggested—will not serve the cause, as there must be a prerequisite that the Korean army has the ability to monitor & track North Korea’s missile movements and precisely strike key targets in Pyongyang independently. Furthermore, the handover of operational control may reduce the number of reinforcement troops in the allies’ contingency plan. An allied operation plan for an all-out-war includes deployment of 690,000 troops, five aircraft carriers, and 1600 aircrafts. Such formidable force can decrease once there is less formal American commitment to Korea, regardless of how much Washington values their friendship. Mr. Trump assumes that Korea can defend itself from the rogue communist state. To a considerable extent his belief is well founded, but the power of deterrence is considerably weak when the South is unilaterally keeping North Korea in check.

Therefore reclaiming wartime operational control is not the answer. On the other hand, South Korea should increase its stockpile of advanced weapons and focus on surveillance and strike competence, which can be accompanied by a massive build up of intelligence capability. South Korea’s ability to detect political and military contingencies in North Korea has been criticized repeatedly, notably with its failure to obtain the information of the death of Kim Jung-il, the father of the current strongman, in 2011. This year in May, Korea’s National Intelligence Service came under fire when it wrongly reported that Ri Yong Gil, former chief of the North Korean military’s general staff, was executed. Korea should seek to enhance its Human Intelligence (HUMINT). Spy satellites and surveillance planes are useful in discerning North Korea’s troop and missile movements, but the regime has been erratic in nature even when compared to the time it was under Kim Jung-il’s rule, who was more cautious and skillful in dealing with the South. Being cognizant of the reclusive regime’s intentions and game plans will be crucial when it comes to preventing and dealing with occasional aggressions which Pyongyang seems to have made a habit of over the last decade. This will be only possible with “our man in Pyongyang”, a human source that can relay back to Seoul on the trend of power play within the ranks of North Korean military.

Pressure and Persuade China

To deal with the issue of diplomatic pressure on North Korea, Korea needs a fundamental shift in its paradigm. Bilateral talks between the North and South throughout the last 10 years produced little result, and so did the Six Party Talks that only served to buy time for the dictatorship. Such dire condition warrants a drastic change in the way regional countries engage with North Korea, namely directly putting direct pressure on China. International effort to denuclearize North Korea largely came in the form of sanctions, blocking the reclusive state’s trade with even its closest allies. But China has been providing oil and food to North Korea despite participating in UN-led sanctions itself, while Chinese firms are engaging in illegal transactions with its North Korean partners. For example, the 2007 sanction on Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, although successful, did not push China to freeze North Korean assets in its country in large scale.

It was only after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test earlier this year that the Obama administration considered sanctioning Chinese firms in a series of secondary boycotts—compelling banks to freeze the assets of anyone who breaks the blockade. Such bold measure incentivized the Chinese authorities to step up its regulations on companies doing businesses with North Korea, namely the infamous Hongsheng Group.

It is relieving that Mr. Trump claimed he will be pushing China to end its support for North Korea, but given the extremely vague nature of his proposed foreign policy, Korea cannot simply rely on the US to pressure and persuade China. Diplomatic ingenuity will be crucial in reaching this goal.

China considers South Korea to be part of the American ring of allies region, and its support of North Korea comes not as much from their communist comradeship as from the fear that it will lose a buffer state that can prevent the presence of American troops on its border with the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, although China does not favor North’s nuclear armament, it fears that a sudden stop of aid may result in the collapse of the regime, which in turn can lead to a refugee crisis on its border. Although South Korea’s long-term goal is unification—Korea’s constitution stipulates the Republic of Korea to be the only legitimate government in the peninsula—it must allay China’s fear of a sudden, overwhelming collapse of North Korean system. Like it or not, dismantling nuclear program does not equate to liquidating the regime.

Obviously, Korea is not in a state to impose sanction on China or even its major firms. But Korea needs to show that North Korea’s growing nuclear stockpiles can endanger Chinese interests in the long run. For example, the Korean government was right to explicitly state that once the threat of North Korean nuclear missile is gone there is no further need for THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile). China has long suspected that THAAD is an American ploy to monitor Chinese missile movements, reducing the power of deterrence when it comes to a Sino-American conflict. Actually removing THAAD after the end of North Korean nuclear threat may or may not be in the interest of the US, but it is apparently an incentive for China to ramp up its effort to pressure its quasi-ally into giving up its nuclear program. Korea should also hint that the more North Korea grows stronger, the more the South is forced into American sphere of influence. Although the US is South Korea’s strongest ally, Korea enjoys large volume of trade with China. In that backdrop, it has refused make a clear stance on the tensions in Southeast Asia where America and its allies are facing territorial dispute with China. Korea should signal that the more China loosens its grip on North Korea, the more it is forced to abandon the delicate balance between siding with China or US on a variety of issues, because then American influence, not Chinese, will be the only hope of removing North Korea’s nuclear threat. Such declaration may force the hands of the Chinese to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.

As Henry Kissinger noted in his book World Order, Bismarck’s 19th century aphorism applies in this situation: “We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.” It is unclear how exactly Donald Trump’s ascendancy will shape the region, but South Korea should seek to exploit any opportunity that comes from it. It’s about time we show off our own audacity and brilliance.

The Grand Strategy: Triangular Diplomacy

But the most game-changing move should come in the form of Korea’s Triangular Diplomacy. President-elect Trump’s idea of American retrenchment has overreaching implications not just limited to North Korea. It also impacts the geopolitical terrain of partnerships and alliances—Korea may not be able to count on the US to be its permanent, omnipresent ally. Such condition warrants a need to seek alternative partnerships in the region.

Due to tension over past history and territorial dispute over Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo), Korea has refused to form an alliance with Japan. An outright alliance is simply unrealistic, but Korea should seek to form partnerships with Japan where needed not only in preparation for American absence but also for Korea’s rise as a global power that the Korean people aspire. In Northeast Asia, where powerhouses like Japan, China, US and Russia play dangerous realpolitik, and with the ever-dangerous North Korea, it is strategically unviable to declare unswerving animosity towards Japan.

Korea should pursue a two-track diplomacy, whereby it separates negotiation over contentious issues and areas where they clearly should be cooperating in, such as environmental issues and North Korea. The coordination will not only have merits of its own, but also create an optimum environment for Korea to play Triangular Diplomacy with Japan and China. To see how such grand strategy would work out, one can revisit how the US exploited Sino-Soviet split in the 1970s.

After Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956 and the subsequent de-Stalinization, Mao’s China criticized the Soviet Union for its “revisionist” ideas. Border dispute near Ussur River flared up that in 1969, the two countries came close to an all-out-war. US President Richard Nixon exploited this historic rift between communist comrades to bring about concessions from both China and the USSR. First, using diplomatic back channel, the US started engage with China, lifting a travel ban on China and relieving economic sanctions in July 1969. Fearing a Sino-American partnership against the Soviet Union, Kremlin had to tone down its aggression; it signed Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), and proceeded with a summit with Nixon in the fear of renewing tension even when its Vietnamese ally asked it to cancel the meeting after massive bombing campaign on Hanoi. China reduced its anti-American rhetoric and showed willingness to work with the US on issues such as diplomatic normalization. This was possible because China and the USSR was each other’s number one enemy—their hatred for capitalist US paled in comparison to mutual animosity. Nixon’s Triangular Diplomacy served American interest by exploiting its position in the region.

Similarly, Korea should take advantage of the fact that Japan and China are suspicious towards each other more than they are about Korea. Despite much war of words between Japan and Korea, Japan has never threatened a military clash with Korea since 1945. On the other hand, Japan has continued to participate in military exercise with US marines to train for a potential Chinese takeover of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island. China also sees Japanese militarism as a bigger threat than Korea; Chinese state media do not shy away from boldly commenting on the prospect of China-Japan limited warfare, while it does not unnecessarily provoke its Korean neighbor. In that respect, once Korea establishes a possibility that it can cooperate with Japan the same way it is doing with China, a new possibility of Triangular Diplomacy will be open.

When China is failing to uphold its promise to reign in North Korea, Korea can work more closely with Japan to share intelligence on its weapon—an uncomfortable scenario for China. When Japan pressures Korea to make concessions over Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo), or make provocative statements over the contentious issue of Comfort Women, Korea can signal that deteriorating public opinion of Japan can lead the country closer to China in issues that have Japanese interests at stake. This Triangular Diplomacy, when substantiated with more details by policymakers, can boost Korean interest in the region even amid reduced American presence in the region.

In fact, a first step towards such Grand Strategy has been consolidated this week when Korea and Japan signed General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) which facilitates the sharing of classified defense-related threat. In this case, intelligence on North Korea is likely to be a big part of the agreement. This can be used as a “quasi-stick” to China, who is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of Seoul and Tokyo cooperating. But at the same time, Beijing needs to realize that such move came from a strategic need to keep North Korea in check, which would have been unnecessary had China successfully persuaded North Korea into giving up its nuclear stockpile. In essence, Korea is not only obtaining valuable information via its partnership with Japan, but also signaling to China that there aren’t many alternatives to working with Japan if the international community fails to remove North Korean threat. Significantly, Korea has also suggested to China that they also sign this agreement, laying foundation to a potential Triangular Diplomacy in this field of regional geopolitics. These efforts should continue and expand into other areas such as environmental pollution, territorial dispute and trade.

Of course, all this can be materialized only when Korea’s own domestic politics is stable. The current state of Korean politics is anything but unified and calm, amid the Choi Sun-sil scandal that has hit the country hard. It seems that only when those who are culpable for this unimaginable calamity are brought to justice—which will take time—will the issue be settled, if it ever will. Korea’s Presidential election is scheduled for December 2017, but with increasing demands for President Park Geun-hye’s resignation, the transition may come earlier than expected (Under the Korean constitution, once the President is either impeached or resigns, there must be an election within 60 days). The new administration should seek to maintain current alliances while harnessing Korea’s independent military and political strength, and explore the possibility of partnership with even unlikely entities. In the past, there were too many occasions where Korean politicians prioritized ideological victory over rival parties and popularity to national interests. Coupled with potential American retrenchment, further political internecine can be fatal—let’s hope that is not the case.