Hollow peace is worse than none
*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
It is possible that U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will announce a grand bargain when they meet, but they will almost certainly remain miles apart on the issue of actual denuclearization. National Security Adviser John Bolton has called for a “Libya Model” of complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, but North Korea will never agree to dismantle their program in three months as the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, has made seductive pledges about denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Historically that has always meant, from their perspective, that the North will denuclearize only after the United States ends its so-called hostile policy and suspends its security guarantees for Korea and Japan as well as all sanctions and criticism of the regime. Even the new ideas put forward by Pyongyang about pledging “no first use” or “no transfer” of nuclear weapons would be logical only if North Korea expects to keep its nuclear weapons and missiles. Real denuclearization is likely to remain elusive.
At the same time, however, Kim probably wants a grand bargain out of the summit so that China will relax its sanctions and Pyongyang can escape from the maximum pressure campaign it now faces. President Trump also appears to want a grand bargain because his North Korea diplomacy is playing so well with his political base, which chanted “Nobel! Nobel!” at a recent rally in response to President Moon Jae-in’s proposal that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Politically, the peace talk works well for the president since it has animated his own political supporters and left the liberal Democratic Party in the awkward position of having to argue against peace going into the U.S. mid-term elections. Finally, I suspect that President Moon wants a grand bargain because the alternative might be a return to talk in Washington of a preventive military strike on the North. From that perspective, even a hollow agreement is better than war.
We should want diplomacy to work, but we must recognize that any gains on denuclearization will be incremental. In pursuit of incremental process, we must not present a thread that opponents of the U.S.-South Korean alliance can pull on to unravel our alliance before we have reduced the threat from the North, let alone dealt with the longer-term challenge from China. This is why the euphoria over a “peace mechanism” is so misplaced.
Two recent news stories demonstrate how the peace mechanism thread can be pulled to unravel the alliance. The first was Prof. Moon Chung-in’s article, which speculated that a peace mechanism would obviate the need for U.S. forces on the peninsula. The Blue House quickly disavowed the idea, but in Washington, many observers suspected that Professor Moon was channeling the views of some within the Blue House who secretly continue to harbor resentment of U.S. military forces on the peninsula. The second story was The New York Times report that the Trump administration is examining options to reduce U.S. forces on the peninsula as part of a peace negotiation with the North. The White House disavowed that report, but President Trump himself acknowledged he is thinking about reducing U.S. troops. He has repeatedly questioned why there are U.S. troops in Japan or Korea in the first place.
The public and legislative support in both countries for the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula is at historic highs. However, difficulties in the ongoing Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations over cost-sharing on U.S. bases and efforts by some in the Moon administration to make Wartime Opcon Transfer an early priority for the Security Consultative Mechanism will only cloud the question of how committed the Blue House and White House are to the commitment to support the U.S. presence.
It is not difficult to see how the euphoria over a peace mechanism, combined with these other developments, would encourage opponents of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to start pulling harder on the thread they hope will unravel the security relationship. China will pull that thread by arguing that terminal high altitude area defense deployments and U.S.-South Korean military exercises should be downgraded to make way for a peace treaty. In Japan, opponents of U.S. bases on Okinawa, which are critical for the defense of Korea, would undoubtedly use a “peace mechanism” to argue against U.S. presence.
In the United States, the small minority of experts who think the United States needs to extract itself from the Korean Peninsula in order to focus on containing China might be emboldened. In South Korea, opposition to steps necessary for deterrence in the face of a real North Korean threat could increase. Professor Moon was not necessarily right about the legal and geopolitical reasons for a sustained U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, but he revealed how tempting a peace mechanism would be for those who want to weaken that military presence.
Trump and Moon should test Kim Jong-un’s willingness to take concrete steps towards complete denuclearization. However, declaring peace without an actual reduction in threats is not cost-free. If dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize cause the leaders of the U.S.-South Korean alliance to tug at the threads of our alliance, there are plenty of others who will keep pulling on those threads in an effort to unravel one of the pillars of peace in Asia.