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Expert views U.S.-DPRK summit, says U.S. Forces Korea reduction not to tip military balance

By Tatsuya Fukumoto


More than a week has passed since President Donald Trump and Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un held their historic U.S.-DPRK summit. The concerned countries have been engaging in vigorous maneuvering since then. What was the result of the historic talks and how will the situation evolve? We interviewed Prof. Narushige Michishita of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, an expert on Korean Peninsula security issues.


Q: The joint statement issued after the Singapore summit did not include complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and did not say anything about concrete steps for North Korea’s denuclearization. What do you think of this?


Michishita: It is still not possible to make a comprehensive assessment. While it can be said that the policy direction of denuclearization has been set, the concrete process of what is to be done, in what order, and how is absent. Although the summit meeting had symbolic significance, it is still not possible to tell its substantial significance. Things may indeed move toward denuclearization and the normalization of U.S.-DPRK relations, but a return to a military crisis is also possible. A negative scenario that may have an adverse impact on the regional situation may also emerge as this process moves forward.


Q: Trump stated at his news conference that there was “not enough time,” admitting that preparations were insufficient.


Michishita: Even if there was enough time, a more concrete agreement would still have been impossible. It is true that the joint statement was weak in substance. However, progress can be made even if nothing is written down as long as there is the political will at the top level, while without such political will, progress cannot be made even if there is a written document. The point of this summit was to take the first step. I don’t think the insubstantial content of the joint statement is a big problem.


Q: What were North Korea’s goals?


Michishita: Easing the economic sanctions mandated by UN resolutions is, of course, a short-term goal for North Korea, but this is not its basic goal. The DPRK developed nuclear arms and missiles even at the risk of being attacked and suffering economic sanctions for two major strategic goals. First is economic rehabilitation and second is the weakening of the security systems built for the ROK’s defense.


Q: Trump indicated at the U.S.-DPRK talks that he would consider suspending joint U.S.-DPRK military exercises. The U.S. and ROK governments indeed announced on June 19 that bilateral exercises scheduled to take in August will be suspended. There is concern that this might lead to the weakening of deterrence.


Michishita: I am not too worried. The “Team Spirit” joint U.S.-ROK exercises were also suspended in the 1990s. Suspending military exercises will not necessarily result in the weakening of the U.S.-ROK alliance although this does have the risk of triggering such a process.


Q: However, it would seem that at this point compromises made by the U.S. side stand out. What is the U.S. government’s intent?


Michishita: I think by reducing its commitment to the ROK’s defense, the U.S. has the strategic goal of shifting its focus from the Korean Peninsula to China. Trump may personally think that the ROK is getting a “free ride” in security, which he doesn’t like, so he is reducing U.S. Forces Korea. However, officials of a more strategic mind are probably trying to focus resources on China by reducing the U.S. commitment to the ROK because competition with China is the more important long-term issue. I believe that for this reason, the U.S. is trying to change the division of labor to make the ROK take up greater responsibility for its own defense.


Q: Trump mentioned the reduction of U.S. Forces Korea in the future. Such a reduction may also impact the security regime in East Asia.


Michishita: It is very unlikely for U.S. Forces Korea to be completely withdrawn, but a significant reduction of the U.S. Army is fully possible. However, I don’t think this will be a very serious problem. The ROK enjoys a significant advantage over North Korea in conventional forces. The reduction of U.S. ground forces in the ROK will not decisively upset the military balance. On the contrary, reduction of forces in areas susceptible to attack will make military action against North Korea easier. The security regime will not be compromised.


Q: Will it still be possible to maintain Japan-U.S.-ROK collaboration?


Michishita: Even closer cooperation will be necessary to prevent the reduced U.S. commitment to the ROK’s defense from weakening deterrence against North Korea. This may occasion a keener awareness of the need for cooperation with the U.S. and Japan among the South Korean people.


Q: What is China trying to do? Is it aiming at maintaining North Korea’s status quo as a buffer zone and grabbing the initiative in Korean Peninsula issues?


Michishita: While China may have such an intent, what North Korea is trying to do in terms of denuclearization and economic reforms is also generally in China’s interest. The weakening of the U.S.-ROK alliance is also compatible with its goal of strengthening its power in the region and expanding its sphere of influence.


Q: Should Japan seek a breakthrough in the abduction issue by holding a Japan-DPRK summit at an early date?


Michishita: It is not that simple. Holding a bilateral summit may not necessarily mean a breakthrough in this issue. North Korea is trying to isolate Japan as much as possible and create the image of a Japan “missing the bus” to gain an advantage in the negotiations. There is no need to rush. However, efforts should be made to take advantage of available opportunities to move forward.


Q: The threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile remains unchanged. Japan should move ahead soberly to build its defense capabilities.


Michishita: I agree. However, the manner in which Japan builds its defense capabilities will change with the ROK taking up greater responsibility for the security of the Korean Peninsula and with shifts in the Japan-U.S. division of labor with the aim of strengthening response to China. Japan should resist manipulation by Trump and proceed with the defense buildup through working-level talks with U.S. defense authorities. In addition to reinforcing missile defense and strengthening systems for the protection of the people, possession of the capability to attack enemy bases should also be considered in order to enhance the effectiveness of missile defense.

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