How else to read Trump’s comments on Thursday that he may hold up the changes to the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement based on how the upcoming talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program go? South Korean officials on Friday publicly said they were looking to the U.S. for clarification on Trump’s remarks. But a Blue House official on the same day laid bare the difference in approaches to denuclearization. South Korea, like North Korea and China, prefer a drawn out, step-by-step process that appears to be a replay of the six-party talks that ran from 2005 to 2008. The U.S., particularly John Bolton, favors a big bargain and action akin to the Libyan disarmament deal in 2003. Trump, hearing the South Koreans on March 8 say Kim Jong Un was ready to talk about giving up his nukes, probably thought a big deal was in the offing, though Trump hasn’t said that publicly so we can’t be certain. But Trump has scoffed at previous presidents’ dealings with North Korea, which is another sign he won’t want a lengthy process with room for North Korea to distract and delay while still building its weapons capabilities.
At the very least, Trump’s comments on Thursday were a signal to his base to lower their expectations for the outcome of a summit with Kim, or even a summit at all. Some of his backers seemed to think that a meeting alone would be a giant victory for Trump and that Kim would just give up North Korea’s decades-long weapons pursuit as a result of it.
There is a middle ground between the protracted talking process and the Libyan big deal model. The Post’s David Ignatius heard it put forth by Kurt Campbell and summed it up like this:
Kurt Campbell, the leading Asia strategist during the Obama administration, argues that Trump and Kim should see themselves as mountain climbers, and establish a base camp from which they can eventually reach the peak of a “grand bargain.” But this base camp needs to be high enough up the mountain, anchored with enough specific provisions, that the peak is in sight.
The Times’ Choe Sang Hun portrayed Trump’s remarks as a sign that the U.S. lacks leverage on North Korea and needs to exercise it on South Korea. But the U.S. has leverage over both Koreas. It’s just unseemly to express and would be terrible to exercise it. Even Trump’s FTA threat on Thursday was a crappy way to treat South Korea, as Daniel Larison wrote.
Over North Korea, the U.S. still has many economic and diplomatic cards to play, but most of all it holds the threat of a military attack. Though immensely risky, North Korea loses everything if it comes to that. Over South Korea, the U.S. holds not just the threat of re-doing the FTA or imposing steel tariffs ( both bad but terribly bad for South Koreans), it more seriously wields the threat of ending the military alliance and leaving the peninsula altogether. This is not implausible. There are plenty of people in both the U.S. and South Korea who would be very happy if the U.S. military left the South. Kim Jong Un and North Korea, of course, would have a major strategic objective of theirs fulfilled if that happened. But just the threat of that by Trump would create political turmoil for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is walking a fine line. On one side of the line is his own and his liberal party’s hopes for advancing relations with Pyongyang. On the other side is the mixed feelings — ambivalence at best and fear at worst — that many South Koreans have about reuniting with the North. Threatening to pull away the U.S. security blanket would bring to the surface a debate that South Koreans, except for activists, have long avoided.
But North Korea’s acceleration of nuclear weapons and missile testing last year changed the U.S.’s costs of defending South Korea. Previously, that cost involved putting a relatively small number of American troops in the way of harm from North Korea’s weapons by basing them in South Korea. Now, with the U.S. mainland in range of North Korean weapons, far more Americans are at risk and Trump and future American presidents are forced to consider a trade between the defense of an American city versus a South Korean one. It would not surprise me if Trump — who doesn’t think South Korea pays its share of the alliance (though it does) and thinks it doesn’t play fair on trade (though it plays more fair than most) and just generally shoots his mouth off — at some point in the next few weeks openly questions the U.S.-South Korean alliance.