‘Strong and democratic Korea is vital to America’s interests’
On Tuesday, Pyongyang announced it would resume working-level talks with Washington on denuclearization, discussions that could possibly pave the way for an ultimate settlement in a third summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Yet prevalent among thinkers and scholars in Washington are concerns that Trump may yield too much to Kim in the process, giving him security concessions in ways that could tip the scale of the current strategic balance in Northeast Asia.
Such apprehensions were apparent in the words of John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who spoke of the risks presented by Washington’s negotiations with Pyongyang during his address and conversation at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies on Sept. 24.
Hamre, one of the most influential public policy voices in Washington and a former deputy defense secretary during the Clinton administration, stressed that whatever the outcome of those talks, the United States must not abandon its military commitments in South Korea, not because of Seoul’s sake, but rather for its own security and the preservation of its values around the world.
Below are edited excerpts from Hamre’s remarks at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies on Sept. 24 and his interview with the JoongAng Ilbo that afternoon.
Q. How do you evaluate the summit between South Korea and the United States on Sept. 23?
A. I think [Trump] is using our having troops here as presenting an obligation for you to pay for. And I just don’t think that is right. I do think you are not just going to buy U.S. hardware. We should be talking about how we integrated our militaries. I am working with people over here on the next generation of defense cooperation between South Korea and the United States. It isn’t just about buying our stuff. It’s becoming more integrated, like in terms of defense supplies. [Trump] is just basically saying “You owe us, because we have our troops here. So you ought to buy more weapons from us.” That’s a very superficial understanding of why we are here and what’s going on in the region.
How do you think the next U.S.-North Korea summit will play out?
First of all, I [support] the idea of having what the president calls “maximum pressure.” But basically making sure that North Korea understands they have no future if their strategy is only about nuclear intimidation. They will never modernize their economy. The health of their citizens is poor. It will be deteriorating. So they have to address this question [of denuclearization]. If they do address the question in a sincere way, then there is a very positive future because we and other countries would provide the assistance. Now we are not going to get instant denuclearization and then, when that’s done, we provide assistance. There has to be a step-by-step confidence-building process. The question is, is there an authentic roadmap? North Korea said, “you have to lift the sanctions before we can talk.” Well, we are not going to do that. So it seems to be both sides have to be realistic about the landscape. There is no future if North Korea refuses to honestly put on the table its nuclear weapons program.
Do you think there’s a possibility the two sides may reach a major compromise at a third summit?
Has North Korea come forward with any real proposals? Not really. Maybe there’s a private dialogue about things North Korea is prepared to do. I haven’t heard anything about that. This is not an administration that keeps secrets very well. But maybe they have a very secret channel. But unless there is some sincere movement by North Korea, then we are going to just have another repeat of the previous two summits.
How is the situation on the Korean Peninsula perceived in the United States at present?
Most Americans only think about South Korea because of North Korea. I think they think that as soon as we have a peace agreement with North Korea, we can pull out. I think that’s really quite an incorrect analysis. Yes, the United States came because of division and because of the war. But we’ve stayed not because of North Korea, but because of China. Because South Korea is the outpost of freedom, democracy and free enterprise in continental Asia. It is South Korea that flies the flag of liberty. The question is do Americans understand that? There are some including my president who think we can defend ourselves from missiles, and we don’t have to worry about short-range missiles. But those short-range missiles directly threaten our allies. It’s that ambivalence in the United States that I am worried about.
Is there much support in the United States for withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea?
You live in a tough neighborhood. China, Russia and Japan don’t want to see a unified Korea. America does want to see a unified Korea. It isn’t just so that we can defeat North Korea. It’s so that a unified Korea can be the strongest possible country on the continent of Asia to champion the values that we champion: democracy, free enterprise, rule of law and accountability of governments to citizens. That’s what’s at stake. Unfortunately there are too many Americans who think as soon as we can get a peace deal with North Korea, we can pull out. [The former U.S. National Security Adviser John] Bolton came here and presented an invoice to South Korea of $5 billion. Pay that, [he said,] because that’s what it costs us to defend you and if you don’t pay it, we’ll leave. I think that is a completely flawed analysis. I’ve said publicly in Washington, and I’ll say it publicly here, I think that’s stupid. Because it starts with fundamentally the wrong understanding of why we are here. We’re not here to defend South Korea. We’re here to defend America and the values America holds dear. And we are so fortunate that we have South Korea as our ally in doing this. We are the luckiest country in the world that shares our values and commitment of freedom. We have too many in the United States that aren’t thinking like this. A strong and democratic South Korea is vital to America’s interests.
How do you evaluate Trump’s approach to North Korea at large?
Trump is completely unpredictable. He doesn’t have a strategic consciousness about things. North Korea during the last two months has launched over eight missiles, and Trump basically just said, they do that all the time, we don’t care. They are all in violation of UN resolutions. All of these missiles could attack and hit our allies. But he is basically implying, because they can’t reach the United States, they don’t matter. I think this is very wrong. I think many members of Congress think this is wrong as well. If the president does want to lift sanctions on North Korea without any real performance on the part of the North Koreans, I think there would be resistance from Congress to the point that would restrict him. That would be the dividing line.
What is your view on Trump’s objective in the process?
I think Trump wants to get the Nobel Peace Prize. I think he feels that if he brings peace to North Korea, he will get the Nobel Peace Prize. The problem is that he just wants to say he brought peace. The fact that North Korea continues to launch missiles, he ignores it. It’s pretty hard for me to understand how he or anyone would conclude North Korea is being a peaceful country just because they are launching short-range missiles and not long-range missiles. I think he would confront opposition if he tried to reduce sanctions.
What I do worry about is that he will try to pull troops out of South Korea. I’m worried that [Bolton] coming over here and demanding $5 billion was the first step in a campaign to justify pulling troops out of South Korea. Here I do worry that there are going to be Americans that agree with it. I don’t. I think it would be a serious mistake. But I do think that there is a large number of Americans that think we’ve been [in South Korea] a long time, that South Korea’s a strong and prosperous country that can defend themselves. I think people who feel that do not understand the larger geopolitical factors that play out. This isn’t about North Korea, it’s about China. Pulling out would be catastrophic. But I think the president with his desire for the Nobel Peace Prize could do some unfortunate things, and I worry about that.
What is your view on South Korea’s ambiguous stance in the ongoing confrontation between the United States and China?
There are some Americans and some members of the administration that don’t like South Korea or the Moon government because it’s not anti-China. I think that’s really a quite wrong way to think about this. This is not about a Cold War. This is about competition. And when it comes down to competition, the most important thing is how you improve yourself so you can compete better. It isn’t how to destroy the other guy, that’s what war is. Frankly, America has got a lot of flaws right now. We need to be spending far more time fixing ourselves so we are more competitive. The American model in the world is tarnished.
When it comes to South Korea, you cannot have a hostile attitude toward China. Nobody in Asia can afford to have hostile relations toward China. That doesn’t mean that you are weak or indecisive or not committed to our values. It’s that you have to have a survival strategy. I think we have to understand that. I think the South Korean government has been careful to make sure they have constructive relations with China. I do not think that means South Korea is weak or not a worthy ally. I think this means that they have a more sophisticated approach than we do.
How do you view the diplomatic row between South Korea and Japan from the perspective of the United States?
America can’t survive without having both South Korea and Japan as allies. I think the administration has failed by not trying to help bridge a process. It’s because we are not thinking about this in a strategic way. When I have conversations with Japanese and South Korean friends, [I say,] ‘how does tension and conflict help you survive over the next 30 years?’ We Americans have to be far more engaged in helping with it. We have to make sure the next 30 years are survivable, and we have to prosper together. I don’t think we’re going to get there by having this tension get tighter and more complicated and angrier. It’s already as bad as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime. I’m quite worried about it. Normally politicians don’t try to tie their own hands. But both governments have tied their hands where it’s very hard for them to move now. I wish America was playing a more active and constructive role.
Do you think the North Korea issue will have an impact on next year’s presidential elections in the United States?
I don’t think foreign policy in general is going to have a very large profile in the next election. We tend to be, like every country, preoccupied about our own problems. There is a fairly broad concern that President Trump doesn’t value allies. I think you will hear some of that in the campaign, but I think you will also hear that Trump stood up to China and nobody else would. I think it’s going to be a complex but not a very decisive discussion. If the president does say I want to pull troops out of South Korea because I brought peace to the Korean Peninsula, then it’ll become an issue, and that will cause a big debate.
BY NAM JEONG-HO, CHUN SU-JIN [firstname.lastname@example.org ]