What a bad week for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His foreign policy initiatives lay in tatters with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to dump the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Russian President Vladimir Putin pouring cold water on Abe’s hopes of regaining some of the Northern Territories.
Abe also has his work cut out for him in trying to cope with developments on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is making progress while Seoul is paralyzed by a leadership crisis — complicated by an untested and erratic Trump. When it comes to the art of diplomacy and how to deal with security issues, Trump is in way over his head, especially in regard to Asia’s most urgent security threat: North Korea.
The choice of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a hardliner, as his national security adviser raises concerns that Trump will become a war president like George W. Bush, leading the nation imprudently and destructively. Flynn served in the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has been referred to as the presidential “ninja” force — one of the JSOC’s units was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden. In “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield,” author Jeremy Scahill argues that JSOC’s dubious record of errant operations and its snowballing “kill lists” proved counterproductive while sowing the seeds of blowback. Flynn’s track record doesn’t suggest he will be reining Trump back.
On a recent visit to Seoul, I was struck by the contrast in views between, on one side, those who seek to strengthen South Korea’s U.S. alliance because they are more worried than ever about war with North Korea and, on the other, those who are skeptical about the deterrence value of the U.S. military presence and nuclear umbrella. Washington has secured Seoul’s agreement to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in 2017, but it’s not hard to find those who doubt the effectiveness of the system and think it benefits America more than South Korea.
A South Korean legislator, expressing qualms about the U.S. nuclear umbrella, recently said it’s time to develop a domestic “raincoat.” After Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, a Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of South Koreans favor developing nuclear weapons, while 34 percent oppose this option. MBC, a major local media company, found 65.1 percent in favor of such a countermeasure.
What do Trump’s instincts tell him about how to handle this tricky situation? In a March interview with The New York Times, which he has since disavowed, Trump suggested that it might be in the U.S. interest for South Korea and Japan to develop nuclear weapons. It is a dangerous proposal and Abe has clearly stated in the Diet that Japan would do no such thing.
Trump’s temper and unilateralism are generating global uncertainties about U.S. reliability. For example, he has promised to rip up the nuclear deal with Iran, which aims to prevent proliferation. Ending the deal is supported by Congressman Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for CIA director, even though the action has implications for engaging Kim Jong Un.
Trump may be right that the Iran agreement is flawed, but he doesn’t appear to have thought through the implications of walking away from it. Instead, he has suggested having hamburgers with Kim, naively overlooking how this might play with U.S. allies South Korea and Japan while blithely rewarding Pyongyang’s bad behavior evident in the recent missile tests.
John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, describes in an October article on the 38 North website the three main options circulating in Washington to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat: 1) a surgical strike to decapitate Pyongyang’s leadership, 2) tighter sanctions to provoke regime collapse, and 3) engagement and negotiations. In his view, only the third option has any chance of success because it is the only option acceptable to China and Beijing’s cooperation is essential. Tighter sanctions won’t work because China won’t enforce them and doesn’t want regime collapse. The decapitation option is dangerous because it would provoke a devastating retaliation against South Korea and might spark a wider war since China is an ally of North Korea. Is that a chance worth taking?
Problematically, there are few signs that Trump intends to nurture a cooperative relationship with China. This means that enlisting Beijing’s help with North Korea is unlikely, so the door to engagement and negotiations looks closed. How will Trump deal with this grave situation?
This is complicated by Seoul’s lingering leadership crisis as South Korean President Park Geun-hye clings to power despite massive demonstrations, negligible public support and a prosecutor accusing her of conspiracy in a major corruption scandal. This is the government with which Tokyo hastily concluded an intelligence-sharing pact, a risky move that could backfire.
As long as Park clings to power, the government will be paralyzed. Maybe she is hoping North Korea will give her a pretext to declare a state of emergency and postpone the inevitable. But she will eventually have to step down or face a messy impeachment. When she is ousted, new elections have to happen within 60 days, creating a vacuum at the top that can only benefit Pyongyang as it continues testing weapons in its quest to develop nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. This might present Trump with the first real test of his leadership qualities — a scary thought given what’s at stake.
Critics accused Abe of cravenly scampering to New York to pay homage, but in declaring Trump trustworthy, Abe boosted his negligible credibility on the world stage. Abe probably hopes this crafty gambit will pay dividends that more than offset the cost of the $5,000 golf club he presented to Trump.
By stroking his ego and establishing a personal relationship, Abe has also reminded Trump who his friends are and who he needs to take care of. Abe is anxious about Trump’s accusations that Japan is free-riding on defense and should pay more for U.S. security. This is a delicate situation for Abe since a recent Yomiuri Shimbun poll found only 5 percent of Japanese support boosting host-nation support for U.S. bases while 24 percent want it reduced. But if Trump asks for more money, Abe will have no choice but to concede. A public spat with Washington or a withdrawal of troops would undo all the efforts he has made to strengthen the alliance to cope with China’s rise and the North Korean threat.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.