Trump and KoreaRepublican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments over the weekend suddenly put the Korean Peninsula at the center of the U.S. presidential campaign. In an interview with The New York Times, Trump made his most specific and substantive remarks about foreign policy, stating some empathy with the idea of South Korea and Japan acquiring nuclear weapons in response to the North Korean threat. He also suggested that he might withdraw U.S. forces from Korea and Japan because the United States no longer needs to bear the burden of defense.
As shocking as these comments may be for Korean readers, the good news is that the response in Washington this week defines Trump’s statements as squarely anti-alliance and yet another reflection of a misinformed populist. The bad news would have been if such statements gained any following, which they have not. What the Republican front-runner seems to miss is that the U.S. presence in Asia is not a one-way transaction. The United States gets as much in benefits from its relationships in Asia as it invests in political and economic capital. The U.S. presence is what Harvard Prof. Joseph Nye once described as “oxygen.” When it is present, you do not notice it, but when it is gone, everyone suffocates.
The U.S. presence in Asia is profoundly in American interests, rather than a charity act of some form dating back to some bygone era. If Trump cares about the bottom line, then a U.S. withdrawal would more than likely create capital outflows from the region, a tanking of the Kospi, Nikkei and Shanghai indices, and an economic downward spiral that would hit American stock markets directly. It would create incentives for China to claim the region as within its sphere of influence. It would end centuries of the American tradition as a Pacific Rim power, and the region’s only honest broker.
The silver lining in Trump is that he is what he says — a businessman. In this regard, he is a pragmatist at heart. Once properly briefed on the equities held by the United States in its Asian security, political and economic allies, the New York real estate mogul won’t be tied to some ideology of isolationism.
Trump’s remarks about a nuclear South Korea come in the run-up to the Barack Obama administration’s last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington next week. They run contrary to Seoul’s upstanding position as a member of the nonproliferation regime and as one of the leaders in the movement to secure the safety of nuclear operations, materials and technology.
Yet Trump’s remarks are bound to encourage some voices in Korea to renew calls for a nuclear option, as we have seen among some politicians and newspapers. I cannot think of a single action that could do more harm to all South Korea has developed since its founding. The discussion still raises suspicions among some in the United States who remember the covert attempts in the 1970s to develop nuclear capabilities. The action would be tantamount to a upstanding citizen of the international community going “rogue.”
Perhaps those who advocate the nuclear option acknowledge that the international cost of South Korea going “rogue” would be prohibitive, and confide that talk of a nuclear option is meant, more than anything else, to spur China to action. The conservative daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo carried an editorial in January suggesting a nuclear option, but that came amid palpable frustration among conservatives at Chinese inaction and stalling on a UN Security Council resolution after the North’s fourth nuclear test. After Beijing signed on to UN Security Council Resolution 2270 earlier this month, calls for a nuclear option have subsided. The Park government (and its predecessor) sees no merit to the nuclear option argument. Most opinion polling in favor of the option, moreover, does not distinguish clearly between U.S. reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons, and the development of an indigenous capability.
The U.S.-ROK civil nuclear energy agreement does not provide Seoul with reprocessing capabilities or fuel enrichment, thereby closing off a path to nuclear weapons through acquisition of a full nuclear fuel cycle. A first meeting of the agreement’s high-level bilateral commission this spring will again raise media speculation about South Korea’s nuclear option, but this will not be discussed.
*The author is a professor at Georgetown University, and senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.