As North Korea’s lead nuclear negotiator begins a series of meetings in Washington this week, the Kim family looks surprisingly close to taking over South Korea, at least closer than it has been at any time since September 1950, when Kim Il Sung’s troops had overrun almost all of the peninsula.
Why the concern now? There is deep anxiety that Kim Jong Un, the bold North Korean leader, will offer President Donald Trump a deal that would lead to the withdrawal of all 28,500 American service personnel from South Korea, something Trump would almost certainly like to see. The Kim family has, since the end of the fighting in the Korean War, continually worked for the withdrawal of American forces.
David Maxwell, who served five tours of duty in the South with the U.S. Army, tells The Daily Beast that a complete withdrawal could be “catastrophic.”
The U.S. may take a step closer to that disaster this week when Kim Yong Chol, Pyongyang’s emissary, meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and perhaps Trump’s new North Korean envoy Steve Biegun in Washington, apparently for the purpose of setting up a second summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump. CNN reports North Korean officials expect Kim Yong Chol to call on the president.
In recent months, Pyongyang has refused meetings with Pompeo and Biegun and has stayed away from working-level discussions on “denuclearization.” The North Koreans believe they can get better terms from a one-on-one summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump. Analysts like Maxwell have been saying that Kim hopes to persuade Trump to take troops off the peninsula.
Trump looks inclined to leave. In March 2016, for instance, he publicly said that Washington could walk away from its treaty commitments to defend South Korea and Japan.
Moreover, he has complained about the cost of stationing American troops in Korea, even going so far as cancelling last June major joint drills with South Korea in part due to the “tremendous” expense.
Trump also called the “war games”—he used Pyongyang’s terminology for the exercises—“provocative” and said he wanted to create a favorable atmosphere for denuclearization talks.
The concern in some quarters in South Korea is that Kim Jong Un will, in the anticipated second summit, offer to give up some elements of his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in return for a withdrawal of American forces.
The core goal of the Kim family—the goal that anchors its legitimacy—is to rule the entire peninsula, and the Kims have thought they could, one way or another, unite the two rival states if there were no Americans there.
Accordingly, no American president has been willing to accept any bargain contemplating the removal of U.S. forces. Even President Jimmy Carter, who was once determined to withdraw all U.S. ground troops, ultimately was persuaded to keep Americans in the South precisely to avoid a coerced or forced unification.
Trump, however, may be the one to agree to the Kim family plans. He has in fact impulsively announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, repeatedly sought to get out of NATO, and now has an opportunity to break the seven-decade old treaty with South Korea. The Special Measure Agreement, a military cost-sharing pact with Seoul, expired at the end of last month after both sides failed to come to terms.
Trump looks at forward-deployed U.S. forces as a burden, something other countries should pay for. “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on earth, not being reimbursed in many cases at all,” he told American troops in Iraq in December. “If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price.”
The South Korean side, led by President Moon Jae-in, is not particularly inclined to pay Washington more than before. Moon is deeply anti-American and, despite what he says publicly, almost certainly wants U.S. forces out of his country. His advisers, many openly harboring pro-Pyongyang views, have been actively working toward that goal by, among other things, trying to discredit the American-led Combined Forces Command.
Moon and his advisers want a “declaration of an end to the war” and then a treaty to formally end the conflict. Members of his inner circle are on record saying there would be no need for American troops after peace is declared.
Trump looks willing to accommodate Moon. On June 1 of last year, he hosted Kim Yong Chol, the envoy, at the White House and the two discussed the matter. “We talked about ending the war,” Trump, on the South Lawn, said afterwards. “And you know, this war has been going on—it’s got to be the longest war—almost 70 years, right? And there is a possibility of something like that.”
There is a perfect storm brewing. Moon, Trump, and Kim all want U.S. forces off the peninsula, the first time the leaders of all three states have shared that goal. Kim, therefore, may not have to offer much to make that happen.
Maxwell, now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out that a withdrawal of American forces would mean the end of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, the Kim regime’s continued possession of nukes and other weapons of mass destruction, and the loss of all U.S. influence in Northeast Asia.
With the U.S. gone, the North would be free to subvert, coerce, and extort the South into submission. Another war on the Korean peninsula is possible because the only thing that has kept the peace since 1953 has been the U.S. commitment. With no U.S. forces to defend the South, the world’s 4th largest army, fortified by weapons of mass destruction, will be able to unify the peninsula.
The South, although it has capable forces, cannot successfully repel a North Korean onslaught, especially because Moon has weakened defenses by taking down observation posts, removing border fencing, and destroying tank traps meant to slow armor racing to Seoul. The South Korean capital is only 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
The U.S., even if not involved in the fighting because its troops have been removed, will not be untouched by such a conflict.
For one thing, there will be global economic upheaval as the world’s second, third, and eighth largest economies become embroiled in what will likely become the most destructive conflict since World War II. Even a peaceful absorption of the South—Moon might surrender without a shot—would be devastating to confidence.
Despite Trump’s implication, American forces are not mercenaries, stationed around the world solely for the benefit of others. In South Korea, they anchor America’s western defense perimeter. For more than a century, Washington policymakers have sought to draw that defensive line off the coast of East Asia. South Korea, at a tip of the Asian landmass, anchors the northern end of a line of alliances.
Trump should understand that it is to America’s advantage to keep hostile Chinese bottled up in what Beijing calls the “First Island Chain” as opposed to sailing unimpeded off Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego.
Kim is about to make Trump an offer the American leader will be itching to accept, but which could lead straight to an end of a successful defense of the American homeland.