By George Friedman
The decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un shocked the world, but in hindsight maybe it shouldn’t have. First, Trump has said on several occasions that he would be willing to meet with Kim, and numerous lower-level meetings took place in the months prior to this announcement. Second, and more important, the logic of what has happened since the situation reached crisis levels in early 2017 makes such a meeting a reasonable next step.
The U.S. had contemplated military action to destroy the North Korean nuclear capability several times over the years, but when it became clear and public in early 2017 that the North was close to posing a direct nuclear threat to the United States, the impulse was nearly overwhelming. The challenges of such an assault were evident. Locating all the nuclear facilities would be difficult, and the U.S. couldn’t be certain of their complete destruction from the air. What’s more, the North Koreans had installed massive artillery concentrations north of the Demilitarized Zone, which could inflict severe casualties and cause enormous damage to South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and to the country’s industrial base. An attack on the North’s nuclear facilities, itself complex, would have to be combined with urgent suppression of this artillery concentration. This could be done, but not quickly, and in the meantime the shelling would wreak havoc.
Any substantial risk to South Korea’s capital, its industry and the metropolitan area of 25 million people was unacceptable. Unless Washington was prepared to sever its relationship with South Korea, its military options – and there were some – were off the table. The red line – that the U.S. would not tolerate a North Korean nuclear missile that could reach the United States – remained in place. Short of that, the U.S. retreated from a military option and entered into talks with North Korea, according to published reports that were not denied.
The North has ceased missile and nuclear tests in recent months, with the last missile test occurring at the end of November. So long as North Korea isn’t conducting tests, it isn’t improving its missile guidance systems, which means it isn’t getting closer to legitimately threatening the United States. The North Koreans have engaged in such pauses before, so this may be nothing, but the pause lays some groundwork for South Korea to take the North more seriously this time.
In February 2018, the North and South Koreans used the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to go public with the prior discussions. Both Koreas had an interest in avoiding a repeat of the 1950-53 war, which utterly devastated Korea. And to a lesser extent, they have another thing in common. The North wants guarantees that its regime will remain intact, and the South doesn’t want the North to disintegrate in a manner that forces South Korea to underwrite its modernization.
In short, North and South Korea have common interests. The problem for South Korea is that it can’t accept the cost of misjudging the North’s intentions, because even without nuclear weapons, the North can still ravage the South’s capital and economy. It wants an entente with the North but not at the price of the U.S. military presence and American guarantees.
And that is precisely what the North wants. Unless the North can split the allies or develop a nuclear-armed ICBM to deter the U.S., its newfound relationship with the United States is tentative at best. The core issue, then, is the U.S. relationship with South Korea. What the North may offer the South is some selective joint economic development – not enough to destabilize the North, but significant enough to strengthen it – in exchange for guaranteeing peace on the peninsula. What this entente would look like in its final form is hard to visualize, but the concept is seductive.
This puts the United States in a difficult position. One of the foundations of the United States’ global strategy is that it retains the naval control of the Pacific it won in World War II. An element of this strategy – and part of the U.S. containment strategy on China – is America’s military agreements with South Korea.
Offstage, two powers are brooding. The Chinese would be delighted to see a break between South Korea and the United States. They have reached out to South Korea, half enticing and half threatening. Japan, far from the trivial power it pretends to be, is appalled at the thought of the U.S. leaving Korea. Japan would have no choice but to rearm on a vast scale, which the Chinese do not want.
It’s a complex environment, but for the U.S. it’s much simpler. The U.S. doesn’t want North Korea to have an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the U.S., and it wants to keep its forces in South Korea. Increasingly it is China, not North Korea, that is the focus of those U.S. forces. As for the North Koreans, they remember that China didn’t lift a finger to help them during the Korean War until China’s own border was threatened, so they have no problem with a balance of power between China and the United States.
If I am right – if South Korea wants both a deeper relationship with the North and U.S. guarantees of protection, and if North Korea would accept a U.S. guarantee that it does not want to push regime change in the North (something Pyongyang has long rejected) – then there may be something to talk about, and it would have to be discussed at the highest levels. It is probably impossible to assuage North Korea’s concern about the U.S. presence in South Korea. It is also hard to envision how to create a relationship between a democratic, industrial South Korea and a tyrannical, primitive North. But the elimination of the threat of war, if it can be guaranteed, might be enough.
What a final deal would look like is not clear, and there may not be one. But this started as a U.S.-North Korea crisis, and it is inevitable that it will end as one. And thus, Trump and Kim may meet – nothing is certain – and that will be an interesting meeting if it happens.