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Tsutomu Nishioka

【#450】Perception Gap behind Superficial U.S.-South Korea Friendship

Tsutomu Nishioka / 2017.07.06 (Thu)

July 3, 2017

     South Korean President Moon Jae In visited Washington for two days of talks with U.S. President Donald Trump. In mid-June, a U.S. military source told me:
     “President Trump will first ask President Moon if he will get on a ship that is about to set sail to stop North Korea’s nuclear missile development. Of course, President Moon will answer yes. Then, President Trump will urge that the United States and South Korea cooperate at a Group of 20 summit in early July in asserting that North Korea’s nuclear missile development is not only a threat to security in East Asia but also an international threat.”

No mention made of THAAD
     While actual remarks at the U.S.-South Korea summit are not available, the published joint statement describes North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program as posing “the accelerating threat” to “international peace and security.” Group of Seven leaders at their meeting in May recognized the North Korean program as posing a new-stage threat to international peace at the initiative of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. At their talks, Presidents Trump and Moon emphasized the need for U.S.-South Korea-Japan cooperation and partnership in policy on North Korea and agreed to hold the trilateral summit on the occasion of the G20 summit in an apparent bid to stress a North Korean threat as a global one.
     Published outlines of the Trump-Moon talks and the joint statement indicate that President Trump brought up President Moon by offering to enhance the U.S.-South Korea alliance, reaffirming the U.S. nuclear umbrella provided to South Korea and supporting South Korean efforts to pave the way for the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula. However, it should be noted that they made no mention of the United States’ deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System known as THAAD while deciding to continue work to expeditiously enable the conditions-based U.S. transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean forces.

Transfer of wartime operational control to relieve N. Korea
     President Trump had been reported as being angered by President Moon’s efforts to delay the THAAD deployment for various reasons after his inauguration. The transfer of wartime operational control on South Korean forces had been promoted by the Roh Moo Hyun administration and postponed by the succeeding Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye administrations for reasons such as the tense North Korean situation. After retiring from the presidency, Roh said he had asked the United States to transfer the wartime operational control on South Korean forces as the United States’ possession of the control could be taken by North Korea as a threat. At a time when North Korea is threatening the international community with nuclear missiles, Moon has taken over the policy that Roh initiated to ease the U.S. threat being felt by North Korea. Is the Moon administration trying to relieve North Korea instead of leading North Korea to feel a military threat?
     The United States could feel no need for stationing U.S. forces in South Korea under the Moon administration that is uncooperative about the THAAD deployment which is to defend U.S. forces in South Korea. Although the joint statement reaffirmed the United States’ defense of South Korea with conventional and nuclear weapons, the United States could undertake the defense even without stationing forces in South Korea. If the Trump administration were to adopt air strikes on North Korea, the presence of U.S. forces within the range of North Korean long-range guns might become an operational impediment.
     The Trump administration may be willing to decide how to deal with South Korea after confirming how strong the pressure exerted by the Moon administration on North Korea would be.

Tsutomu Nishioka is a member of the Planning Committee at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and Visiting Professor at Reitaku University.