The much-awaited summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un on June 12 has produced a rather tame agreement with no immediate or dramatic outcome. The agreement lays down the roadmap for new relations between the long-time adversaries United States and North Korea but has little by way of concrete steps and timeframe for this voyage in uncharted waters.
The agreement includes a commitment by Mr Trump to “provide security guarantees to the DPRK” and Mr Kim’s “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. The questions preceding the summit regarding the differing perceptions of the definition of denuclearisation have been left unanswered. The agreement does not mention the words “verifiable and irreversible” along with “complete denuclearisation” and would worry naysayers like national security adviser John Bolton.
In many ways the one hour long press conference of Mr Trump after the summit revealed more about the background discussions, understandings reached and reciprocal moves which the US would make as North Korea takes concrete steps towards denuclearisation, including closing a missile testing site.
In the agreement there is mention neither of easing sanctions against North Korea nor of any economic assistance. However, responding to a question Mr Trump declared that “sanctions will come off when we are sure that nukes (of North Korea) are no longer effective”.
In the press conference Mr Trump made two important announcements surprising US allies in the Indo-Pacific region and alarming the strategic community around the globe, which is grappling with issues related to managing a rising China.
Mr Trump announced an immediate stoppage of the longstanding US-South Korea military exercises, which he derogatorily called “war games”. He justified this decision on two counts: one that these were provocative (to the North Koreans) and second, that these were very expensive. Driving the latter point home, he also said that South Korea should be paying more for these joint exercises.
His second announcement was that “I would like to bring the (soldiers) back home. That is not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be.” North Korea would seize this opening to secure a drastic reduction in the 30,000 US troops in South Korea, which would have grave implications for the conservative side of the South Korean polity, Japan and all those countries of the Indo-Pacific who advocate a robust US presence in the region to balance China.
The present liberal ruling dispensation in South Korea comes from an ideological tradition which holds the US responsible both for the division of the peninsula and the suppression of all democratic and human rights in South Korea from 1947 to the late 1980s when the US blindly backed the repressive autocratic regimes of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. They hold the US generals, who controlled the South Korean Army, responsible for the infamous Gwangju massacre of hundreds of protesters by the Korean troops in 1980. Liberals believe that South and North Korea will be able to resolve all their differences if outside powers, including the US and China, keep away.
Even conservative South Korean policymakers express the view that the US troops in South Korea are to defend the South only against North Korean aggression. The crux of the matter is that despite the history of the Korean war, the present generation Koreans do not feel threatened by Chinese military power. Of course, South Korean public opinion continues to be hostile towards Japan as the scars of the brutal Japanese colonisation of 1910-45 have not yet been healed.
It is evident that President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un have developed a shared vision for the Korean peninsula as enunciated in April 27 “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula”. In the preamble the two leaders “solemnly declared before the 80 million people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun”.
With this ringing declaration, South Korea has indirectly conveyed the future irrelevance of US bases in South Korea, a message which has now been endorsed by Mr Trump. Whether the powerful US establishment is on board, is not clear. There are indications that defence secretary James Mattis was taken by surprise by the twin announcements. In a quick statement Pentagon assured its nervous allies that “our alliances remain ironclad, and ensure peace and stability in the region”.
China would be pleased with this turn of events. China has always publicly advocated denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and has been irked both by massive US-South Korea military exercises in its neighbourhood and the presence of 30,000 US troops close to its territory. Drastic scaling down of US military presence and activity in the East China Sea and on the Korean peninsula would be of strategic advantage to China. If events move in the direction laid down in the Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore Agreement, even the continuation of THAAD batteries on South Korean soil would become untenable.
This trajectory of gradual retreat of US military presence from the Korean peninsula would be a source of worry to Japan and other East Asian countries facing the challenge of dealing with the rapidly increasing military might of China. It appears that Mr Trump is focused on his “America First” policy and would be content once North Korea credibly gives up its capacity of a nuclear strike on mainland US. In pursuing his “America First” policy Mr Trump does not distinguish between long-time friends or foes, cares little about the concerns of its allies and friends and adopts a purely transactional approach.
If the US policy is guided by this approach, then the ruling elite and the people of Japan would be forced to ponder whether Mr Trump would ever be willing to put at stake New York to save Tokyo. The reliability of the “extended nuclear deterrence” hitherto promised by the US is now questionable.
India also must analyse the statements and actions of Mr Trump very carefully and avoid any strategic reliance over the US. As clearly articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, India would continue to build bridges with China, cement relations with Russia and work with other major powers to strengthen regional peace and security. “Strategic autonomy” and multiplicity of options would serve India’s interests well in this dynamic strategic environment.
The writer has served as India’s ambassador to South Korea