A Day Makes a Difference in a Decades-Old US-North Korea Chasm

The author in Korea, circa 1977/78

When I was stationed at Korea’s Osan Air Base in the late 1970s, no one even imagined a day when an American president would be shaking hands with a North Korean leader. In fact, just a few months ago that still seemed impossible. Yet it happened.  Although measured skepticism is plainly in order, the Trump-Kim Jong-un summit might yet prove to be a “Green Swan” of historic proportions.

Readers may recall that in early January I offered the concept of national security “green swans as something of an antithesis to the notion of “black swans” (which are typically unexpected negative events). Green swans are unexpected positive happenings, and among my 2018 predictions was the end to the crisis with North Korea that was then threatening to spin out of control.

True, I didn’t get it completely right, but if the immediate “crisis” isn’t fully over, it at least seems markedly diminished.  Obviously, we are nowhere near “there” in terms of a complete end to the threat posed by North Korean nuclear weapons.  Details and verification do matter a lot so – at best – the summit simply begins what will necessarily be long and complicated process.  And my guess last January as to how the then-extant crisis might be resolved (China taking control of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal) hasn’t emerged as any part of a permanent solution (although – who knows? – it still might!).

Nevertheless, let’s review the key part of the text of yesterday’s joint U.S. and Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) statement:

  • The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  • The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  • The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

In broad terms there’s some real goodness here, but let’s appreciate that this isn’t a case where either side gets something for nothing. The communiqué also states that:

President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Perhaps in recognition of the U.S.’s commitment, President Trump has announced a suspension of military exercises, which he considers expensive and provocative, adding that “[u]nder the circumstances, that we’re negotiating … I think it’s inappropriate to be having war games.” It is, however, a move that’s sure to energize some critics (the New York Times is already characterizing it with a negative tone as a “concession to the North”).

A souvenir from an exercise in Korea in which the author participated 40 years ago

In my view major exercises have always been bargaining chips in this negotiation, and ones that are relatively low risk for the U.S. since it already significantly overmatches North Korea militarily.  Additionally, military exercises are things that can be relatively quickly and easily renewed if progress stalls.  In the near term their absence can also be at least partly offset – militarily speaking – by “holding smaller joint exercises in Korea or the United States and larger unilateral South Korean exercises.”  Suspending major exercises does not at mean that U.S. or South Korean forces will cease readiness training.

But critics of the summit will have their say.  The Washington Post, for example, contends that “Trump’s plan for North Korea was China’s plan first,” and quotes Abraham Denmark, director of Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as saying “China’s objectives on the Korean Peninsula have been to maintain stability, encourage North Korea’s denuclearization and reduce U.S. influence.” Denmark adds that “Beijing got everything that they wanted” from the summit.

Is the implication supposed to be that anything that is also a Chinese objective must, ipso facto, not be in the U.S.’s interest?  Sure, that may true in many cases but – really – don’t we need to get beyond reflexively viewing everything with China as a zero-sum enterprise? To my way of thinking, maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula and encouraging North Korean denuclearization are great objectives, irrespective of who shares them.

Will the U.S.’s influence be reduced by the summit? I disagree with Denmark. To the contrary, the images of Trump especially personally working towards a peaceful diplomatic solution on a highly-volatile matter serves to counter perceptions that his administration is retreating from global leadership, and that the U.S. is too quick to resort to military force.

The current patch of the author’s former unit, the 51st Fighter Wing

That said, I agree with Senator Lindsay Graham (and many Democrats) that sanctions against North Korea should not be lifted “without verifiable dismantling of its nuclear and missile arsenal.”  I also agree with Graham that “if diplomacy fails, as a last resort, Democrats and Republicans need to put the military option on the table.”

Osan AB, Korea, 2017 (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Franklin R. Ramos)

Peace on the Korean Peninsula is what everyone wants (remember we have an armistice there, not a peace treaty). It’s been a long time coming: even in the 1970s, service in Korea was all about being ready to “fight tonight.” There were endless warfighting exercises and an unambiguous assumption that conflict could break out at any moment.  Professionally it was (and is) a very serious assignment.

Personally, I found Korea to be a beautiful and fascinating country filled with energetic and wonderful people.  When I returned decades later near the end of my career it was an even better place than I remembered. Its vibrant economy and robust democracy is a model for the rest of the world…including those living to the North.

U.S. troops have been in Korea for almost 73 years to the day, and I consider being among the generations of Americans who have served there an honor. Has the “raison d’être” for U.S. troops to be there “disappeared” as some suggest?  Not yet, and likely not for a long time. Trump has said in early May that wasn’t considering a drawdown of troops in Korea. Interestingly, however, a recent poll said that “forty-five percent of South Koreans want U.S. troops to remain in their country indefinitely — more than twice the percentage of Americans who feel this way.” For now, I strongly oppose reducing U.S. forces in Korea.

To underline, we shouldn’t be overly euphoric about the summit as things can certainly still fall apart, especially considering that both leaders have mercurial impulses.  And, in any event, there is much work that needs to be done.  But every journey of a thousand miles is composed of many steps, and we are seeing some hopeful ones being taken.  Given the grim alternative, this effort – as unconventional as it may be in so many ways – deserves every chance we can give it to succeed.

Can we agree that extending a hand is better than shaking a fist?

As we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, examine the arguments, assess the law, and decide for yourself! 

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