30.09.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula and Trump as President of the free world

42341231231Rumours of Hillary Clinton’s serious illness have created a new wave of rumours that Donald Trump’s presidency would significantly change the situation on the Korean peninsula. This is because with him being the President, the US may adhere to isolationism, choosing to less interfere into the internal affairs of its neighbours and refraining from undertaking costly and risky operations aimed at bringing democracy anywhere at tips of missiles. Besides, Trump admitted the possibility of the withdrawal of US troops from the Republic of Korea, as the benefits from stationing the troops are more or less non-significant, and the South Korean army is no longer in need of direct support as when Rhee Syngman was President.

Say Donald Trump becomes President. How can this change the situation on the Peninsula, even if he really does what he promised? Unfortunately, the author cannot see any prospects for substantial progress. There are several reasons for that.

The first reason is that Trump’s politics on the question of the Korean Peninsula nuclear program do not seem to be coherent. One day, he is willing to discuss the nuclear issue with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, stating that he does not see any problem in having a dialogue with the North. The next day, directly contradicting this, he refers to Kim Jong-un as a maniac, who must be stopped. He has also hinted already on the possibility of preemptive strikes on North Korea.
Then he suggests that China should resolve the question. Otherwise, Beijing would see a decline in its trading relations with the US.

A conclusion may be made that Donald Trump does not have any clear solution to the problem. In principle, it is not surprising because as President, he should concentrate on US internal political problems, and the rest is secondary for him. However, the question of who will deal the foreign policy arises. Perhaps for us, Trump being the President should not be as important as the person who would be Secretary of State in his government. This official would be entrusted with making strategic decisions in this sphere. The author does not yet any suitable candidate for this paradigm-shifting role. However, taking into account that the Republican party always has enough supporters of tough actions against North Korea, Trump could easily do nearly the same thing that Lee Myung-bak did earlier. He may take the “Cold War” veterans, and, in fact, exchange tough policy toward the DPRK for reforms in the US as these being more important for him.

Trump remarks, “The democrats have been unable to solve the problem, and I’ll fix it.” However, he does not say how! While he criticizes Obama and Clinton for the current situation, he does not review their mistakes in the methods they implemented, and does not say what he would do in their place.

The second reason is the fact that Donald Trump is a populist. This leaves a mark on his style of political decision-making. Political populists must look cool and act cool. This drives them into a trap, because in the case of a certain (not necessarily North Korea’s) challenge, Trump is obliged to behave so as not to lose face and not look like a loser, a wimp or a dud. And this is the same kind of thinking that motivated President Johnson to send troops to Vietnam.

Besides, populists are sensitive to public opinion, and it is difficult for them to go against the masses. Meanwhile, there is an already fully formed public opinion in the United States on the Korean question: the DPRK, thanks to the Stone Fish Law, is a hell on earth, where everyone is tarred with the same (leader’s) brush, and if they distribute any drugs, they are shot with a subartillery gun.

He also said that South Korea and Japan should pay for American troops stationed in these countries. Otherwise, the troops could be withdrawn. However, he also admitted the possibility that South Korea and Japan may make their own nuclear weapons, and then, they will balance each other with the North. However, “The US don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it” means that concessions to the patented country of darkness will be extremely less acceptable. Hence, it is less probable that with Trump, the solution to the North Korean problem shall reach a consensus.

The third reason is the most interesting. Say Trump is ready to withdraw American troops from South Korea and does it. But where will all the mutual defence treaties be taken to? These treaties specify that if the conflict on the Korean Peninsula begins, the United States would be enforced to defend its ally, regardless of whether there are their troops on the peninsula or not. Moreover, in case of such a war, the South Korean army would get under the US’s immediate supervision. Of course, they may restrict themselves with high-precision weapons strikes and leave the field war to their South Korean allies, but even in this case, there will be victims.

Then, how would the tension in the region be reduced after the US troops’ withdrawal? Trump is not actually against the disappearance of the old world order based on the NPT. He admits the emergence of new nuclear states (including Japan and the Republic of Korea) that would balance each other in the Indo-Pakistan style. However, there is the question of whether the US troops withdrawal and/or the Republic of Korea’s nuclear weapons may really be a balancing weight. Contrary to the ideas of some patriots and conspiracists, according to which all evil comes from Washington and regional authorities are no more than its pawns, in the modern South Korea-US alliance, the trend in the conflict comes from Seoul rather than Washington. Let us add to this the fact that after the Americans leave, the South Korean generals would have to solve all matters, which they are not ready to do. While the High Command sheltered behind the Yankees, all major strategic, logistics and other war-supporting issues lay not on the shoulders of the South Korean, but American generals.

Besides, overall, the US army has many years’ experience in military operations from different war theatres and against different enemies. Among modern armies, only the Russian army or Israeli army may boast the same. While this is not, of course, a clash of equally-powerful enemy forces, such combat experience provides one with the possibility of ‘improving’ and be in good shape. The South Korean army lacks such experience. The generation of young officers who fought in Vietnam (ex-President Chun Doo-hwan was one of them) has long left the armed forces. A South Korean contingent in Iraq guarded the South Korean civilian experts at the maximum distance from the area of combat and won countless victories, mainly, on the scenario pages of the currently popular series ‘Descendants of the Sun’.

However, the Republic of Korea’s ‘sofa strategists’ are vehemently spoiling for the fight, having a less idea of what the price of the victory may be. And where is the guarantee that after South Korea’s ‘young’ military men turn out to be uncontrollable, whose position I described in one of my previous articles, they would not then decide to try and crush Pyongyang, hoping that in case of failure, the US would still come and rescue them?

So even with Trump, the situation on the peninsula may develop in different ways.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook