WASHINGTON: Kim Jong Un has decided to show Donald Trump that the White House hasn’t cornered the market on drama, much less the Nobel Prize for bringing the two Koreas peace in their time.
As the leader of a regime known for its bombast and abrupt about-faces, Kim’s threat to cancel their meeting in Singapore next month is par for the course in dealing with Pyongyang.
But Kim also is sending a message - their agenda needs to go beyond his nuclear weapons and missiles.
NORTH KOREA HAS OTHER GOALS
What Kim is after isn’t a secret. Pyongyang has long said its nuclear weapons aim at deterring a US attack on North Korea. It would be wise to take Kim at his word.
While Trump has said that eliminating the North Korean bomb and missile programmes is the summit’s sine qua non, Pyongyang made plain this month that it has other goals, backhanding the idea of trading its nuclear arsenal for an end to economic sanctions or access to Western investment.
For now, the US-North Korea summit is still on the schedule. “We’re moving along and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said Tuesday. “If it doesn’t happen [in June], maybe it will happen later.”
Speaking at a media briefing ahead of his meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the White House, the US president again stressed that denuclearisation “must take place”. He said:
I have very strong opinions on the subject.
However, Trump’s focus on nuclear weapons – and his seeming willingness to put US forces on the negotiating table – is missing the North’s real leverage: Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and firepower within easy striking distance of Seoul.
WANTING TO REDUCE US PRESENCE IN ASIA, NOT ALONE
Kim wants a reduction in US forces that menace his regime, not only in South Korea but also in Japan and elsewhere around the peninsula. He’s not alone in reaching for the chance to put the US presence in Asia in play.
His reconciliation with president Xi Jinping after five years of estrangement is ample evidence China sees the opportunity too. Beijing is extending its offshore military reach in order to raise the price of Washington’s strategic access to Asia.
A US drawback from Korea would serve the goal well.
Kim is focused on the long game. If talks go forward after June, their differences over denuclearising Korea obviously won’t be resolved in a day.
Trump is demanding that Kim shut down his weapons programme, warning sanctions won’t budge until he complies. Pyongyang wants a mutual and phased approach, security guarantees, and a treaty ending the Korean War.
Kim has said he isn’t demanding a US troop withdrawal as a condition for denuclearising the peninsula. He doesn’t need to. For the last several years, Trump’s campaign-trail comments about US forces abroad probably couldn’t have opened that door any wider if he’d used talking points drafted in Pyongyang.
Trump’s threats to pull back troops or close bases if US allies don’t redo their trade deals or pick up more of the US military tab, of course, still make his domestic supporters cheer.
RISKS WILL REMAIN AFTER DENUCLEARISATION
For Asian audiences, however, the applause lines are undermining US credibility. For them, an effort to reach a nuclear deal with Kim won’t change the risks on the Korean peninsula.
How Pyongyang arrays its conventional forces and Korea’s geography show why.
North Korea has deployed two-thirds of its million-strong army within 60 miles of Seoul. Along with the manpower, 8,000 artillery systems and 4,000 tanks are dug into a reported 4,000 hardened sites north of the DMZ.
In addition to conventional munitions, the North’s forces possess hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles as well as fully developed chemical and biological weapons.
To be sure, North Korea’s artillery and armour aren’t invulnerable. Precision weapons and airpower would take their toll, as would the US ability to transport soldiers and equipment to sustain the allies’ campaign.
But even with dated hardware and an army strapped by the North’s sorry economic state, no US commander would underestimate the costs of neutralising its firepower, or the devastation likely from the fight.
HOLDING SEOUL HOSTAGE
A strictly military calculus also misses the strategic point. Even without nuclear weapons, the North Korean army holds Seoul hostage.
With the vast majority, the North’s nearly 14,000 long-range guns and rockets near the DMZ, Seoul’s metropolitan area is well within range of the forward-deployed artillery.
American and South Korean analysts also believe that North Korean commanders are provisioned to attack without notice, handicapping civil defense leaders as well as military commanders who would have only minutes of warning time to prepare.
With half of all South Koreans living in Seoul, the challenge of protecting its 25 million residents is obvious. So, too, are the risks to the economy.
Seoul generates 55 per cent of the nation’s GDP; hosts its leading universities, research centres and high tech firms; and is home to seven of Korea’s top 10 exporters.
The implications of its vulnerability aren’t confined to the peninsula. South Korea produces 40 per cent of the world’s liquid crystal displays, 17 per cent of the world’s semiconductors and 64 per cent of its memory chips; the impact on global markets if Samsung, SK Holdings or other production plants are damaged isn’t hard to imagine.
If Kim wants to talk about the 28,500 US troops in South Korea next month, the right place for Trump to begin is the conventional threat faced by the American soldiers and their South Korean counterparts.
Nearly 20 years ago, the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe laid out practical steps that reduced the risk of conflict created by similarly forward-deployed NATO and Warsaw Pact forces.
A focus on Kim’s nuclear programme shouldn’t be an impediment to applying its model. In Europe, conventional arms talks unfolded in parallel with strategic arms negotiations.
Trump has an opportunity to put the North’s conventional threat on the agenda. If the Jun 12 meeting happens, it’s a good place to start.
Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and CIA’s director of public affairs.