If South Korea’s most sober and cool-headed people are checking the prices of houses in Fairfax this week, there are some good reasons for that. Our next president-elect’s Korea policy could not be more unsettled if he had written it on an Etch-a-Sketch, set the Etch-a-Sketch on the bed of the honeymoon suite in Trump Tower, and fed four quarters into the magic fingers.
In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump advocated a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facility before it’s too late. In this year’s campaign, he said the North is China’s problem to fix, though he also expressed a willingness to hold nuclear negotiations with the North’s leader while eating hamburgers. Trump has also called the North’s leader a “madman,” a “maniac” and a “total nut job,” but he’s also praised the young dictator, saying it is “amazing” for him to keep control of the country. [Yonhap]
On the U.S. side, then, it has never been so true that “personnel is policy.” The potential candidates for State, Defense, and Treasury are a Whitman Sampler — diverse and surprising, and in some cases, we’ll probably want to throw them away after the first bite. The New York Times lists the candidates for Secretary of State as John Bolton, Bob Corker, Newt Gingrich, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Stanley McChrystal. All of these men are well-qualified, experienced, and intelligent, and they’ve given much serious thought to foreign policy, although I’d have some misgivings about Gingrich’s temperament and judgment.
Also, Dana Rohrabacher’s name has been mentioned. So has Rudy Giuliani’s, although I can’t see what he really knows about foreign policy.
Bolton’s nomination would throw the left and the isolationists into apoplexy. It’s tempting to say that this alone is a reason to nominate him (it isn’t). I’d be most reassured by the nomination of Bolton or Corker (who is blamed by some on the right for green-lighting President Obama’s Iran deal, but who played an essential role in passing the North Korea sanctions law this year).
Having met Bolton more than once, he’s a much more sophisticated thinker than his foes give him credit for. I was most surprised by his dry sense of humor — indicative of a capacity to digest contradictions and contraindicative of a one-dimensional ideologue. Bolton narrowly lost a tough confirmation fight to be U.N. Ambassador in 2005, due in part to his undiplomatically harsh characterization of North Korea. I’ve relished pointing out that at the time, one of the strongest critics of Bolton’s criticism of Kim Jong-il was John Kerry, who went on to say worse of Kim Jong-un, thus implicitly validating that Bolton was really right all along. On North Korea policy, I’ve defended Bolton’s record and pointed out that President Obama’s entire North Korea policy (such as it was) was a series of sand castles built on UNSCR 1718, which Bolton drafted and negotiated.
For Treasury Secretary, candidates under discussion include Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the current Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Steve Mnuchin, a Wall Street banker who financed a string of successful Hollywood films and who holds conventionally conservative economic views, and Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor and darling of economic conservatives. For Defense, those under consideration include Michael Flynn (who has been accused of being too cozy with Putin), Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions.
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South Korea’s beleaguered President, Park Geun-hye is understandably terrified of this uncertainty and the risk that Trump’s election could endanger the country’s alliance with its long-standing security guarantor. For example, Victor Cha was quoted as suggesting that Trump might accelerate the transfer of operational control of alliance forces from the U.S. to South Korea. It’s a move first proposed by Donald Rumsfeld, but South Koreans have come to see it as a first step toward U.S. withdrawal. Nervous South Koreans have been trying to build bridges to Trump’s transition team, even as protesters have massed in the streets in an attempt to oust the first democratically elected South Korean President to have an effective North Korea policy since … ever.
Park must have been relieved when, in a ten-minute telephone conversation, Trump promised that America would continue to be a “steadfast and strong” ally, would stick by Seoul “all the way,” would “never waver,” and would be “with you 100 percent.” Reports of the conversation between Park and Trump suggested that Trump had backed away from some of his more isolationist rhetoric, and reassured jittery South Koreans. One subject Park probably brought up was sanctions against North Korea, maintaining the momentum toward cutting off Kim Jong-un’s hard currency, and confronting China’s long-standing and willful sanctions-busting. Here, Trump’s team has been saying the right things:
The United States should impose “secondary boycott” sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for doing business with North Korea, a senior member of the transition team of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump was quoted as saying Tuesday.
Former Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner, considered a key policy expert in the transition team, made the remark during a meeting with a bipartisan group of South Korean lawmakers, according to Rep. Na Kyung-won of the ruling Saenuri Party.
Feulner’s remark suggests the U.S. is expected to intensify pressure on China. That’s also in line with Trump’s stance on how to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. He has said that he would pressure Beijing to exercise more of its influence over Pyongyang because it is basically China’s problem to fix.
Feulner also strongly reaffirmed the alliance with South Korea, Na said.
“While stressing that there is no daylight in the alliance between the two countries, he said that there is no difference in the positions of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party or between the ruling party and the opposition party,” she said. [Yonhap]
Trump now denies that he ever suggested that South Korea and Japan should go nuclear. (I’m willing to give him a pass on that if it reassures people, but the idea of going nuclear doesn’t strike me as an insane view from the perspective of defense planners in Seoul, Tokyo, or Taipei. What strikes me as insane is the idea of letting Beijing and Pyongyang have a nuclear monopoly in Asia.)
In any event, the reassurance won’t last.
First, North Korea immediately made it clear that it won’t denuclearize. This isn’t surprising, although even in his infamous “hamburger” gaffe, Trump still said of Kim, “[W]ho the hell wants him to have nukes?” That puts Trump and His Porcine Majesty on a collision course.
Second, even assuming Trump nominates a competent foreign policy team, we’ll likely see some difficult negotiations next year over the next USFK cost sharing agreement. I had expressed the view that South Korea should pay a greater share of the cost of USFK long before Trump did. According to the World Bank, Israel spends 5.9 percent of its GDP on defense and the U.S. spends 3.5 percent. By contrast, South Korea spends 2.5 percent and Japan, just one percent. With the U.S. paying the cost of new THAAD batteries in South Korea, U.S. taxpayers will shoulder a higher cost. Given the insufficiency of THAAD as a defense against shorter-range missiles, South Korea may have to buy C-RAM and Iron Dome to protect Seoul and its surroundings. Clearly, South Korea and Japan will have to do more. It’s also true that the three countries are stronger together, and that by integrating their defense strategies, all three countries would spend less to protect themselves against a common threat. The U.S. can make a good deal for the taxpayers if South Korea and Japan pay something more than 50% of the cost, and something less than 100%.
The greater danger, however, lies in the convergence of North Korea’s nuclear hegemony and weak leadership in Seoul. Pyongyang is gradually losing control over the flow of information to its suffering people, and an impoverished North cannot coexist with a prosperous South. Kim Jong-un knows that this ideological competition is zero-sum, and that one system must eventually defeat the other. He cannot possibly believe that his starving conscript army could occupy South Korea today. Instead, since 2010, he has been fighting a war of skirmishes, instigating calculated provocations and sometimes winning important concessions on South Korea’s self-defense, its national policy, its sanctions-busting financial subsidies to Pyongyang, and even South Koreans’ freedom to criticize the North’s system of “government.”
It’s not hard to see how this war of skirmishes will escalate when Kim Jong-un gains an effective nuclear monopoly on the Korean peninsula, or how a future leftist South Korean government might yield to a slow-motion surrender, as part of an extended “peace process,” to the celebration of much of the world press and a few academic dullards who will not even understand what they’re witnessing. Indeed, the greatest Korea policy challenge that most Americans do not fully grasp is how deeply anti-American and anti-anti-North Korean — and in many cases, how pro-North Korean — the South Korean left really is. Today, it looks overwhelmingly likely that the left will end up winning next year’s South Korean presidential election. It’s difficult to see how the next Secretary of State will align with the next South Korean president on defense or North Korea policy.
What all of this means is that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is about to face its greatest threat since the election of Jimmy Carter, only now, the potential consequences are vastly more terrible for Korea, and for us all: One Slave Korea, the end of nuclear nonproliferation, an increasingly direct North Korean threat to the U.S., and a vast range of geopolitical, humanitarian, and economic effects, all of them bad.
But on the bright side, I hear there are some great bargains in Loudon County. See it before the last leaves fall.