The ICAS Lectures


North Korea's Nuclear Issues post Singapore:
Summit and Future of ROK-U.S. Alliance

Taewoo Kim

ICAS Summer Symposium Special

June 29, 2018 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM
US House HVC Room 201-202
US Capitol Visitor Center
Capitol Hill
United States Congress
Washington DC


Biographic sketch & Links: Taewoo Kim

North Korea's Nuclear Issues post Singapore:
Summit and Future of ROK-U.S. Alliance

Taewoo Kim
Professor of Military Science at Konyang Univ,
Former President, Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU)
Retired from Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA)

(Slides for the presentation)

New Cold War & Sino-DPRK Nuclear Collusion

Since 2010s, New Cold War confrontation between the United States and China and North Korean nuclear issue have been the biggest variables determining the security landscape in Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. The North's nuclear problem has been parasitic in the confrontation in that the latter has resulted in China's de facto connivance at the North's nuclear weapon program while the former has also been a cause amplifying the latter in that the North's nuclear endgame deepens rivalry between the two giants. The nuclear issue has also significantly distracted the ROK-U.S. alliance. Under this circumstance, China continued double-play by officially participating in sanctions against Pyongyang but helping the regime to stay afloat behind the back, thus signaling green lights to the North's nuclear weapon development. Such China-DPRK nuclear collusion continued until President Trump declared a trade war against China in the latter half of 2017 and will revive anytime if something goes wrong with the U.S.-DPRK nuclear talks kicked off by Pyongyang's peace gesture in the beginning of 2018. Surely, as long as China keeps its "China Dream," ambition to continue the economic and military rise toward a China-centered international order, and as long as the New Cold War persists, the Sino-DPRK nuclear collusion could resurface anytime.

Singapore Summit: Disappointment & Confusion

In fact, the historic and unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, the world's most unlikely bromance, has left in its wake both disappointment and wishful confusion. The joint statement failed to include key principles like CVID and roadmap for the North's denuclearization. At the press conference held after the summit, President Trump stated that "provocative and expensive U.S.-ROK joint war games will be stopped, I would like to eventually bring our soldiers back home," giving a shock to the guardians of alliance in Seoul. But, some of them, with wishful confusion, refuse to believe that President Trump supported by smart staff like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo signed the unsubstantial joint statement without knowing it is so. They struggle to believe Washington have more profound calculus than ordinary people can think of. Anyway, the Singapore summit was not the end of the era of uncertainty; rather, it was the first step towards the unchartered territory.

Four Scenarios

From now on, future of the North's nuclear question will be determined by the motives Pyongyang harbors and the roles Washington will play. There are two hypotheses for Pyongyang: Goodwill and Ploy Hypotheses. The Goodwill Hypothesis is that the Kim regime has firmly decided to give up nuclear capabilities to change the nation qualitatively. The Ploy Hypothesis is that Pyongyang is engaged in a deceptive peace game to decouple the ROK-U.S. alliance and remove U.S. influence from the peninsula. Also, there are two hypotheses for the U.S.: The Good Cop Hypothesis assumes U.S. traditional roles protecting global liberal democracy and respecting allies' security. The Deal Maker Hypothesis assumes that the Trump administration under the slogans like "America first" and "economic nationalism" will apply the commercial approach to alliance policy and nuclear negotiation with the North.

Then, four scenarios can be drawn: Goodwill plus Good Cop, Goodwill plus Deal Maker, Ploy plus Good Cop, and Ploy plus Deal Maker. Of course, the first scenario is the best. In this case, the journey of the North's denuclearization will be smooth and Washington will not make concessions that can undermine South Korean security. President Moon's Moonshine Policy will be broadly supported.

The second scenario is made of a combination between the North's Goodwill and the Deal Maker role of the U.S. In this case, nuclear dialogue will be carried out without particular turbulence. Though Washington is more likely to be lenient in accepting Pyongyang's demands and tolerate less-than-complete denuclearization, that situation will not pose a threat to the South's security as long as the North has good intentions. In the third scenario, Ploy plus Good Cop roles, the post-summit nuclear negotiation is likely to end up with an inevitable failure. The North will play salami tactics, agenda slicing tactics, etc. which they had used during the six party talks while asking for various concessions, unacceptable to Washington and Seoul. Amid controversies over President Trump's nuclear diplomacy, the nuclear talks will eventually go aground and the Korean peninsula will be shrouded again by crises and tension.

The fourth scenario, the worst for the alliance and South Korean security, will give a blow to South Korea with combination of internal division prompted by "illusion of peace" and external isolation, making fate of South Korea and the future of alliance to hover between life and death, ironically amid Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul governments' self-celebration of what they have achieved diplomatically. What South Koreans must keep in mind is that the third and fourth scenario could precipitate crises and that one caused by the fourth scenario will be much more detrimental. The former crisis would facilitate the national unity and South Korea can expect help from alliance. However, the latter crisis would come in as combination of external isolation internal division caused by "illusion of peace," making the future of the nation's security and alliance to hover between life and death.

A problem by the Moon government in this peace process is that it has not been willing to prepare "plan Bs" against bad scenarios, thus failing to abide by security principles. The Moon administration, convinced with the North's Goodwill Hypothesis, never clarified why he did not insist on the term "denuclearization of North Korea" and accepted "denuclearization of Korean peninsula" in the April 27 Panmunjom declaration, which Pyongyang has used to mean that the U.S. nuclear influence including the nuclear umbrella should be first removed. The Moon administration now vows to downsize the South's military and transfer at an early time the OPCON. Now it shows preference for early signing of a peace treaty while history tells that peace treaties have often been a means to neutralize the counterpart's security layers and become "prelude of war." Certainly, the Moon administration's attempt to achieve reconciliation with the North is not an object of criticism. However, it is also government's responsibility to take both Goodwill and Ploy Hypotheses into consideration and get prepared against both as long as the Ploy Hypothesis is no less convincing than the Goodwill one.

Toward an Alliance Dealing with Present and Future Threats

Now is time for the U.S. and South Korea to recognize squarely the threats and challenges, immediate and potential, surrounding the 64-year old alliance and develop and shape the alliance into the future. South Korea cannot and should not request alliance policy makers in Washington to tolerate endlessly policy inconsistency caused by change in Seoul government between "conservatives and progressives." Toward the U.S. and China, South Korea needs an "alliance plus hedging" policy line, which means putting the alliance in the center while simultaneously fostering non-hostile and friendly Seoul-Beijing relations. It is painfully true that Seoul's submissive diplomacy will not change China's ambition to build hierarchical relations with its neighboring countries. It is also true that discussing how to strengthen alliance while not participating in the United States' Indo-Pacific Strategy, U.S. centerpiece global strategy, may be nothing but rhetoric.

At the same time, the Trump administration's "America-first" policy and "free-riding" criticism should not pose threat to alliance. President Trump should not negotiate away lavish concessions to the North that can be lethal to South Korean security such as acceptance of half-baked denuclearization of the North, permanent suspension of joint military drill, reduction or withdrawal of the USFK, and ill-timed peace treaty, to list a few. In addition, policy makers in Washington need to keep in mind geo-strategies to properly respond to rising China when dealing with the North Korea. In this context, many South Koreans pundits find problematic the Washington's "non-proliferation-based alliance policy" under which it provides nuclear umbrella to allies while dissuading them from developing their own nuclear capability. They worry such policy would be eventually outsmarted by China's geo-strategic calculus that strengthen Beijing- Moscow-Pyongyang trilateral collaboration to better check the United States and its allies. That is why they suggest preparation of a "nuclear parity" strategy, a plan to deploy the U.S. tactical nukes in south Korea if the North's nuclear question comes back to the starting point and the China-DPRK nuclear collusion resurfaces. Someday, the United States may have to encourage, not discourage, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei and other Asian allies to foster their nuclear and missile capability for the purpose of curbing the increasingly expansionistic China.

Alliance Standing on "People-to-People" Relations

In order for the alliance to prepare new strategies toward the future, an alliance firmly standing on "people-to-people" relations is required. If President Trump makes concessions to Pyongyang deadly detrimental to security of South Korea, and says to South Koreans "This is what your government wants," it would mean that he confines the ROK-U.S. alliance only to "government-to- government" relations. It will frustrate the guardians of alliance in South Korea who struggle to believe that President Trump is neither indifferent to the fate of ally state nor apathetic towards them. In fact, today the alliance stands on "people-to-people" relations comprising incredibly broad and multifaceted foundations that have flourished since 1950. The future of the alliance should be decided primarily on the basis of "people-to-people" relations. (82-10-9040-9240)

This page last updated July 3, 2018 jdb