Fresh from angering allies during and after the G-7 meeting in Quebec, President Trump is heading to Singapore for a historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In the wake of the Canadian meeting, Trump feuded with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, withdrew US agreement from a planned communique, and then abruptly proposed a tariff-free G-7. The question is which Trump will show up in Singapore, the hardnosed negotiator or the conciliatory dealmaker, and what the president is willing to put on the table for Kim.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters ahead of the Singapore summit that the US is committed to North Korean denuclearization and a verifiable agreement. “In light of how many flimsy agreements the United States has made in previous years, this president will ensure that no potential agreement will fail to ultimately address the North Korean threat,” Pompeo said, adding that the "ultimate" U.S. objective remains "the complete, and verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
For its part, “denuclearization” to the Koreans has historically meant the removal of US forces and American nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Un doubtlessly understands that the one thing that prevents his regime from being toppled is his nuclear arsenal. However, Pyongyang’s arsenal is also something that endangers the regime as well.
Kim is painfully aware of the fate of Moammar Gadhafi, who voluntarily gave up his nuclear program in 2003. Less than 10 years later, Gadhafi was dead at the hands of a coalition of Libyan rebels and NATO air forces. Just in case Kim missed the lesson, Vice President Mike Pence explicitly laid it out for him in May.
Kim is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he faces the military might of the United States that can destroy him. On the other, Kim faces the possibility of a weakened regime that could invite a popular uprising. Kim also must consider the possibility that a non-nuclear North Korea could invite an invasion by South Korea and the United States.
Kim’s best choice would seem to be to preserve the status quo. His regime can survive sanctions, even if his citizens suffer. The US won’t risk a nuclear war that could involve China by launching a preemptive strike on North Korea. If Kim can offer some vague promises and win aid from the outside world to feed his people, it would represent a win for his regime. Kim has already improved relations with China simply by negotiating.
If Donald Trump is determined to win a meaningful agreement with North Korea, he must be prepared to up the ante. The likely price for verifiable disarmament would be very high, but nevertheless it could be a price that Donald Trump, alone among US presidents would be willing to pay. The price for denuclearization could be bringing American soldiers home from South Korea.
The withdrawal of US troops from Korea would be a nonstarter for any other president. Not so for Donald Trump. President Trump is not only the only president willing to withdraw from South Korea, he may be actively looking for an excuse to do so. As a candidate interviewed by the New York Times, Trump considered the possibility of ending military alliances if they did not seem to be in the interests of the United States. NBC News reported that Trump considered removing troops from Korea prior to the Winter Olympics, but was persuaded otherwise by John Kelley. In March, Trump threatened a troop withdrawal for leverage on trade deals with South Korea. The New York Times also reported in May 2018 that President Trump had requested options for reducing US troop strength in South Korea.
Reducing the US international role, especially at its own expense, was a big part of President Trump’s campaign in 2016. The US has 35,000 troops in South Korea who have been there more than 50 years. There are an additional 40,000 American soldiers and sailors in Japan. South Korea currently pays just under $900 million, about half of the total cost of basing US troops in the country.
President Trump and his base might well view a deal in which North Korea gave up its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of US troops from South Korea as a win-win. The US would save almost a billion dollars in military costs and could claim that Kim would be defanged. Treaties in which the US agrees to protect South Korea could be honored by troops deployed to other US bases in the region such as those in Japan and Guam.
There are some problems with this strategy. US forces would have to be retained in the region so most basing costs would simply be shifted to other areas. Responding to a rapid ground invasion of South Korea would be problematic if the US had to transport in its own ground troops. The defense of South Korea would become even more dependent upon air support and the American nuclear umbrella.
Secretary of State Pompeo hinted that the US is willing to make concessions to get an agreement. “President Trump recognizes Chairman Kim's desire for security and is prepared to ensure a North Korea free of weapons of mass destruction is also a secure North Korea,” Pompeo said. He added that the US is “prepared to take actions that will provide [North Korea] sufficient certainty that they can be comfortable that denuclearization isn't something that ends badly for them.”
Given that President Trump has shown that agreements entered into by one president won’t necessarily be honored by the next, making North Korea “comfortable” is problematic. Kim is unlikely to be reassured by anything short of a US withdrawal.
President Trump and Kim Jong Un will be meeting privately with only their interpreters. If President Trump decides that he can trust Kim enough to promise a US troop withdrawal, there will be no opportunity for discussion with his staff. Politico reported that the US had not held national security planning meetings ahead of the summit.
“I think I’m very well prepared,” Trump said in response. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude, it’s about willingness to get things done.”
President Trump, who seems to be looking for ways to reduce US troop deployments abroad, is about to hold a closed-door meeting with the dictator of North Korea. President Trump has shown that he is willing to anger allies and walk away from existing agreements. The possibility of historic agreement is real. The big question is what President Trump is willing to give up.
Photo: OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea - 2nd Lt. David Lara stands in the middle of a group of ROK army soldiers and a Korean augmentee to the United States Army to discuss their plan during the first combined short range air defense training exercise between ROK and U.S. air defense artillery units Sept. 7 at the Darrakae training area, Pocheon, South Korea.
U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Charles Morrison