The Asian Voice

Reducing US forces in South Korea may not be bad: Yomiuri Shimbun columnist

US soldiers stand guard during a joint medical evacuatioin exercise at a South Korean Army hospital in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, on March 14, 2017.
US soldiers stand guard during a joint medical evacuatioin exercise at a South Korean Army hospital in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, on March 14, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Since the first-ever Washington-Pyongyang summit meeting in Singapore on June 12 between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, relevant countries have engaged in diplomatic volleyball. How should the results of the historic meeting be assessed and what will happen from now on? The Yomiuri Shimbun asked Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and an expert on Korean Peninsula security issues, for his insights.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: The joint statement issued after the US-North Korea summit meeting did not present concrete measures towards North Korea’s denuclearisation, as it did not include the phrase “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.” What is your assessment of the statement?

Michishita: I can not make a definitive assessment at this stage. The two leaders pledged to move toward denuclearization, but they failed to agree on how to achieve that goal. The meeting carried significant symbolic weight, but we have not seen substantial progress yet. We can go anywhere from here. We can move toward denuclearization and the normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations, but we can also go back to a military crisis. If things go wrong, the situation in this region can become destabilised.

Q: At a press conference, Trump said, “There was no time.” His comment seemed to be admitting there was a lack of preparation for the talks.

A: Even if President Trump had had more time, he wouldn’t have obtained a perfect agreement anyway. Some people say that the joint statement has a lot of flaws, and that may be true. However, if there is strong political will at the top level, the process will move forward no matter what the statement says. If there is no political will, nothing will happen, no matter what is written in an agreement. In fact, supposedly better written agreements of 1994 and 2005 didn’t necessarily produce good results. This is a top-down approach. We will see what happens.

Q: What is North Korea’s aim?

A: Easing of the economic sanctions is one of its objectives, but that is not its primary goal. North Korea has developed nuclear and missile capabilities with perfect knowledge that would result in sanctions. The more fundamental goals the country seems to have are to rebuild its economy, and undermine the security mechanism designed to defend South Korea.

Q: Trump expressed his intention to consider putting on hold joint U.S.-South Korea military drills. Washington and Seoul have since announced they will suspend a regular joint military exercise scheduled for August. Some observers are concerned this could weaken deterrence.

A: I am not too concerned about that. In the 1990s, the U.S.-South Korea combined military exercise called Team Spirit was also suspended. Even if bilateral military drills are halted, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will not collapse. That being said, there’s a risk it might open the door to gradual erosion of the alliance.

Q: Even so, the present impression is that the U.S. side made some striking concessions. What is Washington’s motive?

A: I think there is a strategic intention to lower the levels of commitment to South Korea’s defense and shift the focus from the Korean Peninsula to China. President Trump’s personal view is certainly playing a role. He thinks South Korea is free-riding on security and, therefore, U.S. forces in South Korea must be reduced. But people in the defense community tend to think that more resources should be devoted to dealing with China even at the cost of reducing the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense. They regard competition with China as a more important long-term issue. If the United States decides to do this, South Korea would have to shoulder a greater burden for its own defense.

Q: Trump mentioned the possibility of reducing the number of U.S. forces in South Korea in the future. If this happened, it could also affect the security regime in East Asia.

A: Although the possibility of the United States pulling out all of its military forces from South Korea is very low, major reduction in the size of the U.S. ground troops there is quite possible. However, I don’t think that would be such a serious problem. South Korea has an advantage over North Korea in conventional military capabilities. Even if the United States reduced its ground troops in South Korea, North Korea would not be able to unify the peninsula by force. In fact, reduction of U.S. ground forces might ironically make it easier for the United States to take military action against North Korea because the United States would become less vulnerable with fewer American troops deployed in Korea.

Q: Even with such a reduction, would it be possible for Japan, the United States and South Korea to maintain their trilateral coordination?

A: Even closer cooperation will be necessary to ensure that any reduction in the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense will not weaken deterrence against North Korea. It could even provide an opportunity for raising the South Korean people’s awareness of the need to cooperate more closely with the United States and Japan on defense.

Q: What is China’s aim? Does it want to maintain the current state of affairs in North Korea as a buffer zone and secure a leading position regarding Korean Peninsula affairs?

A: I think it does, and the denuclearization and economic reforms North Korea is attempting to implement serve China’s interests. At the same time, Beijing would be happy to see the U.S.-South Korea alliance weakened for it would make it easy for China to strengthen its clout in the region and expand its own sphere of influence.

Don’t hastily seek Abe-Kim talks

Q: Should Japan hold a summit meeting with North Korea at an early date to seek a breakthrough over the issue of Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens?

A: Could holding a Japan-North Korea summit meeting lead to a breakthrough? It’s not so straightforward. Pyongyang is trying to isolate Japan now in order to enhance its bargaining position in future negotiations. There’s no need for Japan to rush. But if there’s an opportunity for talks, it would be better to move forward with it.

Q: As North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats remain, it seems Japan should steadily press ahead with its defence buildup.

A: Absolutely. If South Korea shoulders a greater responsibility for security on the Korean Peninsula while Japan and the United States focus more on China, the way Japan should build up its defense capabilities will also change. What Mr Trump says is important, but what U.S. defense planners are thinking can be more important. In this sense, US Defence Secretary Mattis’ visit to Tokyo this week offers an extremely important opportunity for defense planners on both sides. In addition to missile defense and civil defense systems already in place, the Japanese government must positively consider acquisition of limited strike capabilities in order to enhance the effectiveness of missile defense operations.

— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tatsuya Fukumoto.

The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.