The Trump administration has declined to rule out withdrawing its troops from South Korea.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent shivers through Seoul — and may have prompted champagne popping in Pyongyang — when he told Fox News that the safety of the American homeland comes first and that is why the United States seeks the denuclearization of North Korea. The danger is what he declined to rule out: that the Trump administration may trade away its alliance with South Korea in a foolish and short-sighted pursuit of North Korean promises.
Of course the U.S. government puts the safety of America first; to do otherwise would be the height of irresponsibility. What Americans may not always appreciate is how a commitment to deter war in faraway lands is necessary for our national security. What leaders should recognize is that what happens on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia will likely have severe effects on the security and economic well-being of Americans at home. Even if Pyongyang’s direct missile threat to the U.S. homeland were eliminated, an agreement that included withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea may come back to haunt America. It will increase the likelihood of conflict in the region, which would result in great expenditure of blood and treasure by America and its allies.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will meet for the second time later this month. The summit could result in a breakthrough that would give Trump the biggest foreign-policy win of his presidency — or it could mark the beginning of a strategic disaster for the United States and South Korea.
Heading into the summit, Washington and Seoul must contend with three major issues that could tear apart their alliance, with catastrophic results for both allies’ security interests: First, they disagree on how much Seoul should pay toward the U.S. troop presence in South Korea; second, what the White House’s protect-the-homeland priority means for Seoul; and third, Trump’s contempt for alliances.
Seoul is very concerned that Kim Jong Un will ask Trump to remove U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula in return for an end to the North’s ICBM program. Kim will argue that the allegedly ungrateful South Koreans are unwilling to fund U.S. troops, and so why put Americans in harm’s way on their behalf?
Yet if such an agreement materialized, Kim—not Trump— will go down in history as the greatest dealmaker in international relations, having maneuvered the American president into approving the continued existence of a nuclear-armed North with the world’s fourth-largest army and an ideology that requires the hostile takeover of the South. Trump will be remembered for having lost Korea and Northeast Asia.
The presence of U.S. troops in Korea is as significant a threat to Kim as his nuclear weapons are to the United States. Their presence is the major deterrent preventing an attack by North Korea on the South. Once the U.S. troops are gone, Kim would be in a position to achieve the divide-and-conquer strategy: divide the alliance to conquer the ROK. We would likely see conflict soon, if not immediately, after the last U.S. troop departs the peninsula.
At first, however, Trump would appear to achieve the biggest foreign-policy win of his presidency. Washington could walk away from the deadlocked negotiations on Republic of Korea funding for U.S. troops, which have ROK-U.S. relations to an all-time low. Currently, U.S. officials are demanding South Korea breach its “psychological Maginot Line” of 1 trillion Korean won ($1.2 billion) in annual payments, a request the Korean government has called unacceptable. Kim may simply follow one of Napoleon’s rules: “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
Any other president would know that the alliance itself is more important than such a dispute. Yet Trump has expressed his disdain for alliances in general and has said at the Singapore summit that he wants to bring U.S. troops home from Korea. Given similar statements about Syria and Afghanistan and his recent decision to withdraw troops from both, there is good reason for taking seriously his pronouncements.
The burden-sharing stalemate combined with a potential North Korean offer to dismantle its ICBMs make it plausible that the president could order the troops home. One idea being floated is that Kim might allow China to take possession of the ICBMs and associated nuclear warheads.
If Trump receives such an offer, there are two things he should consider before accepting: First, it will be strategic error on a scale that far surpasses the 1950 decision to place Korea outside the U.S. “defensive perimeter” in Asia, which contributed to Kim Il Sung’s decision to attack the South.
The second is that Trump will enter the history books as having been thoroughly played by Kim Jong Un. If Kim agrees to give up his ICBMs, it will probably be because he does not really possess a sufficient ICBM capability and he will be executing one of the most effective Kim-family-regime negotiating tactics: get something for nothing. He will have duped Trump into thinking he has protected the American homeland, when in reality he will have given up the ROK and created the conditions for globe-shaking conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Optimists may question whether Kim Jong Un is so cynical and aggressive. Isn’t it possible he would feel secure and satisfied if American troops finally went home? After all, both the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore summit statement describe Kim’s objective as denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula. To understand the meaning of this phrase, one has to know that the United States has not had tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea since 1991. However, Kim considers the presence of U.S. troops, deployment of strategic assets, and extended deterrence as the equivalent of the South being “nuclearized.” When he says “denuclearization,” he means “U.S. troops out of Korea.”
Kim also talks about his desire to change the relationship between the North and the United States, and to end America’s “hostile policy.” Yet what the North Korean leader means by this is, again, the removal of U.S. troops.
Similarly, Kim has confused some observers by demanding a security guarantee. From Kim’s viewpoint, public statements or a signature on a document are insufficient guarantees. He requires a physical security guarantee which — again — means the removal of U.S. troops and an end to the alliance, extended deterrence, and the nuclear umbrella over both Korea and Japan.
A “grand bargain” to remove the threat to the U.S. homeland will end up like all the rest of America’s deals with North Korea. Kim will sustain and improve the capabilities he promised to give up while the threat to the U.S. and its allies remains. The only real win Trump can achieve is the prevention of war on the Korean peninsula until the eventual achievement of a unified Republic of Korea. This is the only outcome that will lead to denuclearization and the elimination of the threat to the United States and its allies.