How far will the United States and South Korea go to assuage a petulant and threatening North Korea? The answer to that question has profound consequences for Japan — and the signs are troubling. Last weekend, the two governments said they would postpone joint air exercises as a gesture to Pyongyang, which demands that all such exercises — and anything it considers signs of a “hostile policy” — be ended if diplomacy is to continue. Diplomacy is important but Washington and Seoul must not give the North a veto over what is or is not needed for their mutual security.
North Korea has long insisted that the root of its problems with the world is “the hostile policy” of the U.S. This, Pyongyang claims, has forced it to cheat on its international obligations and develop a nuclear weapon and to defy the United Nations by testing and developing missile capabilities. That is a self-serving and hypocritical rationalization, one that ignores the threat that the North poses to its neighbors through its fiery rhetoric, physical attacks on their assets, cyberattacks, the abduction of innocent foreigners, extortion and other crimes.
U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to rhetorically disarm the North by meeting with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and offering to create a new bilateral relationship. The first step in that process was the June 2018 Singapore summit between the two men, in which Trump said he would cancel U.S.-South Korea military exercises to build trust. The North insists that the offer was open-ended and considers any attempt by Seoul and Washington to ensure that their alliance remains effective a betrayal of that offer.
In fact, the U.S. and South Korea have scaled back joint exercises. Last weekend, defense ministers of the two countries agreed to postpone joint air drills that had been scheduled in an attempt to prod Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper described the move “as a good-faith effort … to enable peace,” adding that “creating some more space … to strike an agreement on the denuclearization of the peninsula is very important.”
North Korea was dismissive. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson pointed to a U.N. resolution that criticized the country’s human rights record as proof that the U.S. remains wedded to “its futile dreams of destroying our system.” After the failure of talks in Stockholm last month that sought to reinvigorate U.S.-North Korea diplomacy, there were threats by the North to take the country “on a new path” — generally interpreted to mean more nuclear and missile tests — if Washington does not change its approach.
Trump’s readiness to accommodate the North has prompted fears that he seeks a deal at any cost. He is an alliance skeptic, convinced that U.S. allies exploit Washington to unfairly pay defense burdens on their behalf. This is behind his demand for a fivefold increase in South Korea’s payment for the stationing of U.S. troops there, a demand for which Tokyo is bracing as it prepares for cost-sharing negotiations with the U.S. next year.
Coming on the heels of Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from border zones in Syria and end the protection of Kurds, there is a growing fear that such high-handed demands are not negotiating tactics but real signals of an intent to end alliances. After the Singapore summit, Trump said that he would like to bring all U.S. forces home “at some point.” A meeting of the minds with Kim could prompt Trump to conclude that the North Korea threat has ended along with the need for that alliance.
That possibility throws into sharp relief the problems between Japan and South Korea and the likely prospect of the expiration this week of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, the defense intelligence sharing accord between the two countries. While GSOMIA is part of a larger problem in the bilateral relationship, it is a powerful symbol of the concerns and interests shared by Tokyo and Seoul. Tokyo have been dismayed by Seoul’s readiness to politicize defense issues, a policy arena that has historically been insulated from politics.
More alarming, reports that Seoul sought to use GSOMIA to get Washington to intervene in the Japan-South Korea problems suggest a misreading of alliance dynamics. Such maneuvering is likely to further antagonize Trump and confirm that such relationships are too troublesome. The South Korean argument that trilateral cooperation, essential to the security of all three countries, is mainly for the benefit of the U.S. will also reinforce the president’s mistaken thinking.
Expiration of GSOMIA is not as damaging to Northeast Asian security as is deterioration of the effectiveness of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but it would be a body blow nonetheless. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must press Trump to signal his commitment to that alliance and to trilateral cooperation generally. Peace with North Korea is an important and laudable goal, but not at any price.