This is a repost of an essay I wrote for The National Interest a couple weeks ago. The gist of it is that there a lot more hurdles to a Korean War peace treaty than many people realize. That is why it hasn’t happened yet even though it seems pretty intuitive, if not obvious, given that the war has been de facto over sine 1953.
The two big reasons are:
1. A peace treaty potentially undercuts the legal ground for the UN/US structure in South Korea. This, most have long thought, is a big reason the North wants it. If there is formal peace in Korea, what is the US military still doing there? The South Korean left might accept this logic, but the right will not. This is why SK President Moon Jae-In can’t get this idea past his own people. There is not enough consensus for it.
2. A peace treaty may well violate the South Korean constitution, which denies North Korea’s existence. Moon may not even be allowed to sign such a document, which is pointless without SK participation. Worse though is that a peace treaty formalizes and locks-in the division of Korea indefinitely. Again, the South Korean right and SK youth may not mind that, but I don’t think that is enough for the South to formally surrender unification on Southern terms. That woo would be another huge political fight.
This is now the third of these made-for-TV, substance-free summit. Kim wins the optics and legitimation benefits just by showing up. He doesn’t have to do anything; he wins just by coming and smiling for the cameras. Trump on the other hand needs a deal to look like the meeting was worth it, because meeting Kim grants Trump no prestige, as it does vice versa for Kim. In fact, Trump looks at this point like he’s getting played, because he’s not getting anything despite three meetings so far, with a White House event possibly to come. Once again, it looks like Trump is just winging it, which is an asinine way to conduct foreign policy, especially for a superpower.
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 basic idea is that a unified Korea, even one unified under Southern leadership, has much stronger incentives to keep the North’s nukes than most people seem to think.
Generally, everyone seems to think that a UROK (united Republic of Korea) will give up its weapons to the American or, maybe, the Chinese. Or maybe destroy them. But keeping them would be a great way to keep a UROK out of the looming great power contention in northeast Asia between the US, China, Japan, and Russia.
If you are tiny Korea – the shrimp among whales – you want to stay out of the way when these big boys fight. That will be tough given Korea’s geography right in the middle, but nukes would be a really great way nonetheless to insist.
Also, nukes are a great way to defend sovereignty generally against all interlopers, even if there is no regional hot war. Even after France became friends with Germany after WWII, it still built nukes to make sure Germany never invaded it again. A UROK would almost certainly think the same way about its neighbors given their history kicking Korea around and manipulating it.
I am not sure. A UROK still allied to the US would come under a lot of pressure to denuclearize. But the probability of retention is way higher than most people think.
Basically my argument is that even if you are a hawk on China and see it as an emerging competitor or even threat to the US, the clash of civilizations framework is a weak analytical model by which to understand Sino-US tension.
The big problem is that Huntington builds his civilizations everywhere else in the world around religion, but in East Asia he can’t, because that would make China and Japan – who are intense competitors – allies in a Confucian civilization. Making Japan and China allies would be ridiculous, so Huntington can’t use Confucianism as a civilization, even thought that so obviously fits his model for East Asia. Hence, Huntington falls back on national labels, identifying separate ‘Sinic’ and ‘Nipponic’ civilizations. This ad hoc prop-up of the theory undercuts Huntington’s whole point of arguing that national distinctions are giving way to civilizational ones and that therefore we should think of future conflicts as between civilizations, not nation-states. Well, apparently East Asia didn’t make that shift; conflict here is still nationalized. So
There are other issues I bring up as well, but that’s the main problem. Please read the essay after the jump…
But Moon lacks a national coalition in South Korea to push through a major change in relations with North Korea. South Korean conservatives are sliding into paranoid delusions that Moon is being manipulated by the North. The Liberty Korea Party is totally cut out of this process and furious. The big three newspapers in South Korea are all center-right, and all are skittish if not hostile to Moon’s initiatives.
Moon is running this from his left-liberal base, but it’s not big enough. He won with only 41% of the vote. If he does not get at least some conservative buy-in on a new relationship with North Korea, the right will destroy ‘Moonshine’ when it next re-takes the POTROK, just as it destroyed ‘Sunshine’ in 2008.
Basically, Trump blew Hanoi, because he is lazy and poor negotiator. He has no empathy, so he cannot put himself in another’s shoes. Nor does he read, so he has no idea what the issues really are. He isn’t preparing for these meetings. He is throwing them together as he goes. So he walks into them unprepared with little fallback when he doesn’t get his way. Both Singapore and Hanoi failed along the same lines. Trump is 0-2, because he’s winging it.
This is classic Trump of course and shows yet again how badly suited for the office he is. A normal president would have at least had staff hammer out some basic agreement beforehand so that acrimony was not the only outcome. But not Trump. Negotiating to him is laying down ultimatums and sounding off on Twitter. And the response is predictably: the North Koreans are upset at the snub and threatening to restart testing.
For the life of me, I cannot understand the affection of Trump’s voters for such rank incompetence. He is so obviously in over his head, bungling a rare window of opportunity with NK, because he simply will not read, plan, or prepare like a normal professional. It’s amazing he hasn’t wandered into something genuinely catastrophic.