That original essay explored why the US will have to make concessions to North Korea if it wants a nuclear deal. The North Koreans aren’t stupid, and CVID is tantamount to unilateral disarmament for nothing. So if we really want them to give up at least some of the nukes and missiles – they won’t give up all – then we have to give them something of commensurate value. That seems pretty obvious at this point, no matter how much official Washington won’t even discuss counter-concessions.
I see two things we can give them: a) a boatload of money, or b) the retrenchment of US strategic assets from South Korea. Or we can give them nothing and try to adapt to a nuclear North Korea. I would rank these choices as: buy them (bad); live with nuclear missilized NK, ie, accept the new status quo (worse); swap them for a tangible US regional strategic assets like bases or airwings (worst).
So this essay argues why buying out as much of their program as we can is better than nothing or giving up local assets. The last is a particularly terrible idea, because once we leave, we’ll never come back. That’s what happened after the US left the Philippines in the 1980s. Even if we said we could flow back into Korea easily, the actual removal of US hard, tangible assets, like the bases in the pic above, would basically be decoupling/abandonment in all but name. It would dramatically soften the alliance.
So, for as ugly as it sounds to pay them off like its blackmail – and the Kims are nothing if not gangsters – that strikes me as better than the two alternatives.
The full essay follows the jump:
In this space in the last few weeks, I have discussed what, if any, concessions the United States might make to North Korea to achieve at least some denuclearization of that country. Since US President Donald Trump began engaging North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un in negotiations early last year, US offers have been consistently one-sided.
The US has repeatedly demanded the North’s complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament (CVID) – an extraordinary demand tantamount to unilateral disarmament. In exchange, the US has offered vague future benefits – security guarantees, aid promises, modernization assistance, a peace treaty, diplomatic normalization, and so on. This swap is lop-sided in that it expects a huge upfront concession from the North – CVID – in exchange for nothing immediately tangible. Worse, the history of US behavior toward rogue states akin to North Korea – particularly toward Libya and Iran – suggests that the US will not keep its promises. The North will not take this trade, interpreting it as CVID for nothing. It would be great if we could get this, of course, but it will not happen.
Given the political resistance in Washington to ‘negotiating with terrorists’ and ‘appeasement,’ the US has produced no better offer over time. Nor has Trump used the presidential bully pulpit to sell a painful, and therefor serious, concession to North Korea to a hesitant Congress and public. The path of least resistance has been to simply repeat US CVID-for-nothing demands again and again. And so we have. But as the North will not accept such an obviously unbalanced deal, the talks stagnate and nothing changes. Although to be fair, North Korea’s offers have been similarly one-sided in its favor.
Instead, if the US really wants a deal with North Korea, its strikes me that it has two options: offer the North money – a lot – in a cash-for-nukes deal akin to the much-derided Iran deal, or give away US strategic assets in the region – such as troops or aircraft – in a ‘counterforce’ swap. If we cannot stomach either of these, then we just have to adapt to the new Korean status quo of a nuclear missilized North. I would rank our options thusly: 1) buy the weapons (bad), 2) adapt/learn to live with the new status quo (worse), 3) trade away tangible US regional strategic assets (worst).
All these options are poor of course, which is precisely why the North built these weapons, and why Washington’s default response is to pound the table and keep demanding CVID for nothing. But this is fantasy. The Kims are not stupid. Throwing money at Pyongyang has obvious downsides: it is a direct subsidy; the Kim court will absorb it all as funding for its gangster lifestyle; it will launder other, ill-gotten monies. But surrendering actual physical US assets in the region – soldier, hardware, bases – is even worse, and worse than adapting.
Conceding strategic assets is tantamount to the partial abandonment of South Korea and, perhaps, Japan, or the ‘de-coupling’ of the alliances. It has long been assumed that this was a major goal of the North’s nukes, as well as a central reason Beijing never tried harder to stop them. China would also benefit from a US retrenchment from the region. Gambling for that, apparently, is worth the risk in Beijing of an unpredictable ‘frenemy’ like North Korea nuclearizing.
Money is an easier concession, because it is easily replaceable (the South Korean, Japanese, and the US economies are wealthy); it is not political weighted; it does not require complicated logistical or physical structures. It can simply be given to the North while everything else about the US position in East Asia stays the same. This is why it was an appealing choice for the Iran deal too. The politics are a lot easier.
Strategic concessions though have far greater externalities. US assets in region represent the US commitment to East Asian security in a direct, tangible way, giving weight and obviousness to otherwise rhetorical US commitments. And removing them is far more costly than simply packing some units onto a plane and ‘sending the boys back home.’ Trump in his ignorance often talks is if it were that easy, and therefore easy to reverse.
It is not. Anything the US has in East Asia which is substantial enough to swap for North Korea nukes is also large and complex enough to have required years or decades of customization to install. The legacy costs here are huge. US bases in Korea, and Japan, represent elaborate, long-refined compromises between the hosts and the US. Local communities have to be placated and helped in their adjustment to US assets. Land must be bought or rented. Environmental and zoning codes must be followed. Elaborate security must be installed. Complicated legal arrangements – such as the Status of Forces Agreement or Special Measures Agreement – must be struck. Arranging for the use of ground or airspace for exercising is often deeply complicated.
The list goes on, but an illustrative example is the US move to Camp Humphreys in South Korea. Just coming to fruition now, this project has been talked about and underway for decades. Similarly, the US withdrawal from the Clark and Subic bases in the Philippines in the 1980s demonstrates just how hard it is to reverse a withdrawal once completed, as well withdrawal’s possible future costs. Were the US still deeply based in the Philippines, China would likely not be so aggressive in the neighboring South China Sea.
In short, once the US leaves South Korea or Japan, it will not come back. Local interests will re-assert themselves over any bases or facilities surrendered. Local communities will move on. Alliance proponents will have lost an immediate example of US commitment, while opponents will enjoy changed ‘facts on the ground.’
To my mind, these costs – irreversible, strategic, tangible – outweigh adjusting to nuclear deterrence with North Korea.