Much Learning in Two Weeks in Korea

by Stephen M. Saideman

Fun times in Korea, eh?  I was really struck during my two weeks there of a split in opinions–most of the folks I met were “cautiously optimistic” about the situation, that the Trump-Kim summit might lead to a significant improvement in regional tensions, while other folks were in the “ruthlessly pessimistic” camp.  And I was a member of the latter.  Why?  Because TeamRP just could not see anyway for North Korea to “denuke” in any meaningful way when the US had, ooops, done some regime change on Libya.

So, I get back to North America and notice that Bolton has been talking about the “Libya Option” seriously, which did ultimately send the desired signal (if Bolton does not want peace) to the North Koreans.  So, the North Koreans have said that they had no intention of trading their nukes for economic assistance.  That, along with the earlier announcement that that they were skipping a meeting since the US and ROK were not cancelling a key military exercise, reminded us that North Koreans have always been the most obnoxious trolls in International Relations (sorry, John and Stephen).

So, folks are having an epiphany–negotiating with North Korea is hard, and they aren’t giving up their nukes.  I had a bit of a different Korean epiphany thanks to some sharp outsiders (Canadians and Americans who took me out for drinks and bbq:

American troops have long been based in South Korea to do two things: deter the North Koreans and reassure the South Koreans.  Standard tripwire type stuff.  Now, things have flipped as smart South Koreans want the Americans to stay to deter an American attack on North Korea.  Yeah, that seems backwards, but the idea is that Trump would not attack North Korea with so many Americans in harm’s way (is that wishful thinking rearing its ugly head again?).  That Trump would have a freer hand if the Americans were no longer down range of North Korean artillery….

Before I left for South Korea, I thought that the likely outcomes from a KJU-Trump summit would be in decreasing likelihood:

  1. A modest agreement, such as NK agrees not to test any more nukes (its test area is broken and other new nuclear powers tested six nukes, so a convenient time to give away this chip) and US promises to de-escalate a smidge.  Trump would come home, declaring he solved the Korean problem, and the pundits/press would buy it, but not much would have really changed.  Woot!
  2. NK agrees to give up its ICBM capability, Trump agrees to reduce or even eliminate US forces in South Korea, so NK gets not only recognition of being a nuclear power but decoupling of South Korea and Japan from US.
  3. Trump and KJU yell at each other as each is upset that they don’t have a common understanding of “denuclearization.”  So, the road to war is a bit clearer, and John Bolton does a happy dance.

Now?

  1. No meeting as NK does not want to signal that it gave in to “massive pressure” from US.
  2. No meeting as Trump realizes he can’t get the Nobel Prize.
  3. A meeting with much reduced expectations–perhaps freezes of NK’s weapons in exchange for US promising not to regime change (which is believed by none).
  4. War.
  5.  A meeting, then war.

So, yeah, not great.  Are things clearer now than two weeks ago?  Not sure.  I do think Team Relentless Pessimism is feeling pretty good about feeling pretty bad. Woot?

 

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