North Korea has announced that it plans to end nuclear talks at the end of this year and return to a dangerous pattern of provocation and escalation, firing two projectiles at the start of the Thanksgiving holiday. Is the administration prepared for that huge challenge as President Donald Trump runs for re-election? Its actions toward regional allies suggest the answer is no.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper spent a week in Asia this month, purportedly to reassure allies of America’s commitment to the region and bolster the relationships that underpin our shared security. But it was clear throughout the trip that Trump’s actions have put these relationships under severe and unnecessary strain.
As Esper touted U.S.-South Korean ties in Seoul, news broke that Trump was demanding Seoul pay almost $5 billion to cover costs of U.S. troops deployed there, a fivefold increase. Trump may think that’s the “Art of the Deal,” but for the government of President Moon Jae-in, it’s an insult he could never politically accept. Esper, who cannot publicly contradict Trump, could say only that South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more.”
In his next stop in Bangkok, Esper held a news conference with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and announced the postponement of the Combined Flying Training Event, a joint military exercise that was already a downgraded version of the annual exercise called Vigilant Ace.
“I don’t see this as a concession. I see this as a good-faith effort … to enable peace,” Esper said, defending another decision made by the president. There’s logic to the postponement. The administration wants to give Kim Jong Un every incentive to return to the talks and deny him any more excuses. Esper called on Kim to reciprocate this gesture, but instead it was announced the next day that the North Korean leader attended his own fighter drills.
Esper also hosted a trilateral meeting in Bangkok to urge his South Korean and Japanese counterparts to avoid scuttling a three-way intelligence-sharing agreement. Esper said tensions between Seoul and Tokyo were only benefiting Beijing and Pyongyang.
Trump is also pressuring Japan to drastically increase its payments for U.S. troops based there. If putting strain on our alliances is China and North Korea’s goal, Trump is doing their work for them, by pushing the cost-sharing issue at exactly the worst time.
South Korea and Japan actually reached a temporary truce on the intelligence agreement last week, with U.S. help, which just shows that progress can be made if Washington uses its power constructively.
On Esper’s way home from Asia, the Pentagon strongly denied a Chosun Ilbo report that Trump was considering withdrawing one brigade of U.S. troops from South Korea. Regardless of the veracity of this particular story, it compounded concerns about the U.S. commitment to the region because everybody knows withdrawing troops from South Korea is something Trump talks about all the time.
Kim has set a Dec. 31 deadline for the nuclear talks. That’s the same deadline for the U.S.-South Korea cost-sharing negotiations. A normal administration would focus on the former and not worry about the latter. But Trump wants his money – even though he’s undermining his own Korea strategy.
“The administration is not connecting the dots on what’s happening between us and North Korea, between us and our allies and between our allies,” said former North Korea nuclear negotiator Joel Wit. “If the diplomacy fails, we have to push the containment default button, and the success of that depends on strengthening alliances and having a strategy to deal with Russia and China.”
U.S. officials said, in fact, that the Trump administration is quietly preparing for the possibility that Kim will scuttle the talks and do something reckless, like launch intercontinental missiles or test another nuclear weapon. But they also said that if Kim does that, he will actually set into motion a series of events that are all bad for him, by giving other countries a reason to bolster deterrence and increase sanctions against his regime.
If the North Korea negotiations do collapse, they might not do so all at once. Trump and Moon both have political incentives to keep them going, even on life support. But that will make returning to a campaign of containment, deterrence and “maximum pressure” even more difficult.
Right now, China is allowing North Korea to evade sanctions by using Chinese territorial waters for illegal ship-to-ship energy transfers. “They say they are in favor of enforcing the sanctions,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Shriver said this month. “They don’t do it.” Meanwhile, Pyongyang is collecting billions from illicit cyberactivity, according to a recent U.N. report.
The coming crisis with North Korea will be Kim’s fault, but that will be little consolation if we’re unprepared. Trump’s staff must explain to him that “fire and fury” is not a good platform to run for re-election on. Protecting the United States by bolstering the alliances we depend on, not attacking them, is the only responsible course.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He previously worked for Bloomberg View, the Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Congressional Quarterly, Federal Computer Week and Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
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