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“Seiron” column: Nightmare of USFK’s withdrawal emerges from U.S.-DPRK summit

By Kyorin University Prof. Emeritus Tadae Takubo


There were indeed a few astounding moments as the two leaders who are completely different in every sense of the word put on their show. In any case, there is no doubt that Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un has made himself a leading player who was able to talk to the leaders of China, the ROK, and the U.S. on an equal footing in a matter of months.


Trump administration beginning to change


The most serious concern about the U.S.-DPRK summit is that President Donald Trump pledged to give North Korea security guarantees. His North Korea policy that focused on applying “maximum pressure” has been transformed in only a few days. Will this not prove ominous for all of Northeast Asia?


I am also concerned about the passage “Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in the joint statement. The mass media have criticized the statement’s failure to include “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).” This issue will now be left in the hands of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who will be negotiating with North Korea.


Before the summit meeting, Pompeo told reporters in Singapore on June 11: “The final goal in our negotiations with North Korea is CVID,” while Bolton is a hardliner abhorred by North Korea.


Diplomacy involves maneuvering. There would be behind-the-scenes exchanges and tacit commitments. However, the Trump administration’s hitherto rigorous policy on North Korea has begun to change.


In early June, the White House suddenly announced that previously slated new sanctions would not be imposed on North Korea. President Trump himself began saying that he does not want to use the term “maximum pressure” anymore.


North Korea’s Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol was treated with utmost courtesy surpassing that for the top leader of an ally during his visit to the White House. For sure, this was in consideration of the visit taking place right before the U.S.-DPRK summit. Yet wasn’t North Korea the one that was eager to hold the summit? Both Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations took issue with this.


Risky declaration of end of Korean War


Declaring the end of Korean War, which was not written into the joint statement, is also questionable. The Panmunjom Declaration issued after the inter-Korean summit on April 27 states that the two Koreas will “actively pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China, with a view to declaring an end to the War, turning the armistice into a peace treaty, and establishing a permanent and solid peace regime.”


Even before the summit, President Trump had shown enthusiasm for a declaration of the end of the Korean War, which is only one step short of an actual peace agreement, and hinted that such an agreement could be signed shortly. There would probably be no objections to moving from the armistice agreement, which was not even signed by the ROK, to a peace agreement. However, a peace agreement would end the hostile relationship and pledge mutual non-aggression, and this will naturally mean that the United Nations Command would no longer be needed.


A key issue that will emerge amid the “mood for peace” achieved by a declaration of the end of the Korean War, followed by a peace agreement, would be whether the presence of the 28,000-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is necessary. China, North Korea, and Russia are expected to clamor that the USFK is no longer necessary and even target the U.S.-ROK alliance itself.


The future of  the USFK is for the U.S. and the ROK to decide, but what President Trump really has in mind is probably the USFK’s withdrawal, as he indicated during the presidential election campaign. The New York Times recently reported that President Trump has ordered the Department of Defense to study the option of withdrawal from the ROK. This was denied immediately by White House officials, but it is hard to tell which side to believe.


Turning point in the history of postwar Japan-U.S. alliance


ROK President Moon’s foreign policy adviser, his special assistant on reunification and foreign and security affairs Moon Chung-in, wrote in an article published in the April 30 online version of Foreign Affairs that what Kim Jong Un wants from Washington are frequent summit meetings, confidence-building measures, and an official end to the Korean War.


The Blue House said Moon Chung-in’s position was not the ROK government’s position. Yet this denial is  questionable. Would an ROK government official write for publication an article unrelated to the government at a time when very delicate negotiations were taking place between the U.S. and the DPRK? As a matter of fact, frequent meetings, confidence-building measures, a declaration of the end of the Korean War, and a peace agreement are actually going to be discussed in light of the summit. What looms on the horizon would be the USFK’s withdrawal and the dissolution of the U.S.-ROK alliance. There could be nothing more gratifying for China, which is in conflict with the U.S., if the USFK is downsized or even withdrawn through trilateral talks among the U.S., the ROK, and North Korea.


There is no telling what will happen to the balance of power in Northeast Asia. But how will Japan deal with the absence of the U.S. Forces on the Korean Peninsula? The Japan-U.S. relationship will probably become even more important, but new issues regarding the two sides’ defense roles under the security alliance will emerge. This will be a turning point in the history of the alliance after World War II.


Misreading the international situation after the end of the Vietnam War, President Jimmy Carter advocated the USFK’s withdrawal during the presidential election campaign of 1976. He eventually had to back off from this policy in the face of strong opposition. Will President Trump make a wise decision?

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