The spring of 2017 was marked by a series of visits to the Republic of Korea by top US officials, analyzing the results of which three points are important in terms of answering the question “How ‘hot’ will 2017 be”.
Let’s start with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit. During the visit to the NEA countries, the American diplomat visited the inter-Korean border and held talks with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, Yun Byung-se.
In both Japan and Korea, Tillerson stated repeatedly that “the period of strategic patience with North Korea has ended,” and all attempts at nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula have ended in failure. “The threat is mounting, and it is necessary to look for a different approach.” To eliminate nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang, all means are good ones: military actions against Pyongyang are a “negotiated opportunity.” “Of course, we do not want to lead to a military conflict” and “North Korea and its people should not be afraid of the US and other neighbors” (this was admittedly said a little earlier, during Tillerson’s meeting with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in Tokyo) But if the DPRK threatens South Korea and the US troops stationed there, a military response is not ruled out.
In addition, Rex Tillerson called on Beijing to refrain from attacking Seoul for the decision to deploy American THAAD systems in the south of the Korean Peninsula: “Measures of economic retaliation against the Republic of Korea are inappropriate and cause regret. We call on China to refrain from such actions.”
During the meeting on the same day with the acting President of the Republic of Korea, Hwang Gyo-an, the US Secretary of State reaffirmed the inviolability of the military alliance between Seoul and Washington, which serves as the basis for stability on the Korean peninsula. Hwang Gyo-an, for his part, noted the importance of multifaceted cooperation between the two countries in the humanitarian, economic and military fields.
On the other hand, the Koreans noted that Tillerson had called Japan an ally, and Korea only a partner. In addition, he either accidentally or deliberately said “conflict women” instead of “comfort women”, and although the ROK MFA asked to change the expression used in the official record of the talks, Washington did not react. However, the State Department immediately tried to make amends. On March 20, its representative Mark Toner stated that the ROK and Japan are equally important allies and partners of the United States, and there is no reason to continue the dispute about which of the countries is more of a priority for the US.
Another “stone in one’s shoe” was a protocol discrepancy consisting in the absence of a ceremonial dinner: the Korean side decided that after a tense program, the guest was tired, and they would do without the necessary dinner. Then, realizing that this was inappropriate, Seoul tried to present the case so that the dinner had not taken place on Tillerson’s initiative, but the statements of the American side refuted this view. As Tillerson himself declared, “we were not invited to dinner at all … Probably, in the end they decided that it would not be well received by the public, and therefore cited my fatigue.”
Now let’s analyze the visit of US Vice President Mike Pence. This took three days, during which Pence met with the acting president of the Republic of Korea, Hwang Gyo-an, and the Speaker of the National Assembly of the ROK, Chon Se Gyun, declaring Washington’s readiness for any development of events and promising support to Seoul. “In the case of new North Korean provocations, the parties agreed to take decisive retaliatory measures.”
In addition, the Vice President visited the National Cemetery in Seoul, where he honored the memory of those killed in the Korean War, the Demilitarized Zone on the 38th Parallel, met with military commanders and military personnel of the US Army, after which he took part in Easter events together with American servicemen and their families at the US military base in Seoul Yongsan District, and spoke at the American Chamber of Commerce of Korea.
Analyzing the key statements of the US leadership’s right-hand man, it can be noted that, like Tillerson, he stressed the following:
1. Pyongyang is required to stop the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Speaking at a joint press conference with Hwang Gyo-an, Pence asked Pyongyang not to test the patience of President Donald Trump and the US military capabilities. A powerful and effective response awaits all provocations by the North.
2. The new US administration will not continue the policy of “strategic patience”. This was confirmed by a number of statements by top US officials, including Defense Minister Mattis, during his visit to the ROK.
3. The prevalence of the force option was not explicitly mentioned, but the US is trying to ensure security on the Korean peninsula by peaceful means, though all options for action are being considered. “America seeks peace, but has always achieved peace through force.” And in general, if Trump’s patience is tested after all, the response of the United States and South Korea will be “crushing and effective.” Washington and Seoul will not tolerate further rocket and nuclear tests in North Korea, and Pyongyang was advised to pay attention to the recent strike by cruise missiles in Syria.
4. Pressure on China will continue: Pence urged China to use its “special leverage” to exert pressure on Pyongyang, since, in his opinion, Beijing could play a more active role in resolving the situation on the Korean peninsula. However, if China continues to be cautious in solving North Korean problems, the United States, together with its allies, will not only solve them, but take measures against those who do not show proper zeal. Among those is the inclusion of China in the list of currency manipulators and the use of a secondary boycott.
5. However, the interests of the PRC will not be taken into account – Pence and Hwang confirmed the invariability of the deployment of US THAAD missile systems in the ROK, expressed regret over the sanctions that China introduced in response to this decision and agreed to make joint efforts in order to suspend the Beijing’s unfair economic sanctions against Seoul.
In unpleasant news for Seoul, the forthcoming review and reform of the free trade agreement with Seoul was announced, since in five years of its operation the US trade deficit with the ROK has doubled, and the Americans have lost 100,000 jobs. Of course, the revision of the agreement may negatively affect the South Korean economy. However, we are not talking about the cancellation of the document, but rather a revision, which gives hope for minimal losses.
However, the high status of relations between the US and the ROK was confirmed (“Washington’s alliance with Seoul is unbreakable”) and Pence even specifically noted that the US will fulfill its obligations to protect the ROK regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.
Thus, the outlines of American policy are emerging quite clearly, and there seems to be no desire to compromise here. Let’s compare this approach with the proposal of the PRC – the DPRK should suspend its missile launches and the development of its nuclear program in exchange for the suspension of United States and South Korean military exercises. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Yi, said: “Our priority now is to abandon these two trends.”
The author considers this proposal of the head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry extremely important; de facto, representatives of the DPRK presented the same ideas. The idea of freezing the missile program in response to the suspension of regular joint exercises has been advanced by them for several years, and the author agrees that such a simultaneous step back would help alleviate tension. However, as the representative of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea Moon Sung-hyun said, the South Korean-American military exercises will be held as before. They are exclusively defensive in nature and will not be canceled. The US administration also did not support China’s initiative. According to US State Department spokesman Mark Toner, the defense cooperation between Washington and Seoul “is in no way comparable to the blatant disregard of international law demonstrated by Pyongyang.” And this means that the trends leading to an aggravation of the situation remain in effect regardless of concrete steps, and the trend towards easing tension is not yet visible.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading 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.”