Did Trump abandon South Korea at the North Korean summit?

Eugene Gholz

Eugene Gholz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, argues that President Trump's decision to suspend the U.S. military's training exercises on the Korean peninsula is a lot more nuanced—and a lot more strategic to foreign policy—than perhaps many people realize. Will South Korea be left in the lurch if the US suspends military exercises? Hardly. Eugene is brought to you today by The Charles Koch Foundation. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Eugene Gholz: So recently President Trump, as part of a diplomatic opening with North Korea, agreed to cancel or at least suspend for some time what he called “U.S. war games” with South Korea, so training exercises that the United States does with its allies in the Pacific to prepared to defend them potentially against attacks. 

And this shocked a lot of people, both because we’ve been doing these exercises for many, many years and people feel, in fact, President Trump had built up the potential threat from North Korea persistently that said “North Korea is very dangerous and we need to be ready to defend against North Korea”. Now we’re saying “we don’t have to practice anymore”?!  

And lots of our other allies with whom we engage in exercises in the region, not just with South Korea, are saying if the United States can so blithely write off its willingness and commitment to practice, to show that it’s ready to defend us, they’re wondering if they can trust the United States. 

U.S. military exercises are one of our main signals of commitment to defend other countries, to take care of these countries that we’ve made alliances with over the years, but these alliances are very asymmetric alliances. 

These alliances are really the United States promise to defend these other countries—not that the Philippines are going to come defend the United States if somebody ever attacks us—It’s a one-sided agreement.

But to give the Philippines confidence that we would really defend them, for years we have a said, “Well, look, we always show up, we do these practice runs with you, we help train your militaries, we make it easier to operate together, such that if we did have to defend you we would be in a position to defend you.” 

And President Trump, without seeming to think through the military implications or the political signal that he was sending to our other allies, leapt way ahead on making an arrangement with North Korea that said, “Hey, if it looks like North Korea is not going to attack South Korea, it will make North Korea feel better and more willing to make that commitment if the United States doesn’t seem to practice something that the North Koreans think involve the United States preparing to attack North Korea.”  

And so while I think it’s actually perfectly reasonable for the other countries in Asia to believe, especially given the defensive oriented trajectory of military technology, that they can defend themselves without regular U.S. military exercises and a regular U.S. commitment in the region, that’s going to take some preparation. 

The other militaries in this region need to adapt their technology investments, adapt their training programs, prepare themselves for a time when they’re going to take care of more of their own defense. 

And President Trump seems to have just sort of skipped over that and made a very North-Korea-focused offer as opposed to a broad offer understanding its regional implications. 

So South Korea is much more powerful than North Korea. South Korea, the GDP is more than 30 times bigger. 

If you think about just the ability to use its wealth to buy equipment and prepare its military to defend itself it’s vastly greater than North Korea’s military capability. And South Korea’s population is more than twice as big; they can mobilize to be much bigger than North Korea. 

We‘re not leaving South Korea in the lurch. 

South Korea is a very technologically sophisticated country with a capable government that can take care of itself and, of course, there’s a long background capability of South Korea and the United States working together to practice and prepare their militaries to defend South Korea.

At the same time, North Korea’s military—North Korea has not substantially invested in conventional military capability in a number of years. 

They’ve been spending all of their investments effectively on their nuclear program because they’ve understood that with conventional capability they were not going to be able to go on the offense. 

That’s just been off the table for them. 

They had a deterrent capability in the threat to use artillery to attack Seoul, but that was not as good a deterrent capability from their perspective as having nuclear weapons would be. 

And so they’ve been relying on that conventional artillery deterrent capability to kind of get them through, to bridge through while of their nuclear program was gearing up, but all of their money went into their nuclear program. 

So North Korea’s conventional forces are simply not postured, trained, prepared to go on the offense, so we’re not creating an instant problem for South Korea by suspending the “war games”. 

The United States says very loudly in our strategy that we have “defensive aims”; we want to keep the world like it has been. 

We don’t want China to feel like they have the ability to be aggressive towards other countries. We want to be on the defense. 

But in terms of the way we train our military to fight and the investments that we make in our military, the operational concepts that we use we have an offensive operational concept today. 

So what we say is: the way that we want to defend our allies is by threatening to attack, to punish other countries for attacking our friends. 

So we want to always have the ability to project power and go on the offense against countries like China. 

So if we actually got into a war where we had the requirement to defend Japan or defendant Taiwan or defend any of our allies from China, our current military doctrine in the United States says that we will fire missiles and attack the Chinese homeland as a way of defending our allies. So we have an offensive defense today. But given military technology and the tremendous opportunities to make it hard to project power into another country if our strategic aims are truly defensive, if we want to defend Japan and defend Taiwan we don’t need an offensive defense. 

Military technology is making it easier for the United States to have a defensive defense. 

We should reshape our military investment and our military training and our military planning around a defensive defense instead of an offensive defense.