Yesterday’s news that CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited North Korea earlier this month, along with next week’s scheduled meeting between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, suggests officials on all sides are moving ahead with plans for a historic summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump this summer. While other commentators have focused on the technological aspects (testing freeze, capping limits, etc.) of a possible nuclear deal, few have asked what a “package deal” might mean for the US-South Korean military alliance and the security architecture on the peninsula in the near to medium term. If the past is any indicator, North Korea will demand substantial changes to the existing US-South Korean security relationship in exchange for any concessions to its nuclear program. As I explain below, however, there are powerful bureaucratic constraints that suggest the main security pillars on the peninsula are unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.
Ready, Set, Go
Ironically, the negotiating position we know the most about going into the spring summits is that of the least transparent actor—Pyongyang. This is because the North Koreans have consistently called for the departure of US forces from the Korean Peninsula since the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in July 1953. When North Korean regime officials say they want to transform ties with South Korea into “a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation,” as Kim reportedly did in March, they mean a relationship in which the United States no longer has a military presence on the Korean Peninsula.
Although we won’t know all of North Korea’s conditions until the May summit, press reports from a working-level meeting between Pyongyang and Washington earlier this month indicate the North Koreans want the United States to remove its “nuclear and strategic assets” from the peninsula as part of any deal, but may be more flexible when it comes to the presence of American troops there. However, in the long term, Pyongyang’s goal continues to be the departure of all US combat forces from South Korea.
Every US administration since Eisenhower has treated Pyongyang’s demands that Washington pull its troops out of South Korea as a non-starter, arguing instead that substantial behavioral changes by North Korea precede any changes to the US force posture on the peninsula. However, given Trump’s repeated questioning of alliance relationships and his inflammatory rhetoric about burden-sharing, some commentators have begun to speculate that the president may be inclined to agree to a US troop reduction on cost-cutting grounds.
The presence of US forces on the peninsula has been a controversial issue in South Korean domestic politics, since at least the time of the Kwangju incident in 1980. Public support in South Korea for the US military alliance typically falls along party lines, with more conservative parties (like the Saenuri) preferring closer ties and the more liberal-leaning parties (like Democratic Party of Korea, or Minjoo) often calling for reforms.
The last time the United States reduced its force posture in South Korea was in 2004 when then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld redeployed a 3,600-person combat brigade from the Second Infantry Division. The redeployment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team back to the United States (after a deployment to Iraq) was an integral part of Rumsfeld’s larger vision for reforming the alliance. During his tenure at the Pentagon, the United States also initiated plans to relocate the US garrison in Seoul (and other facilities) further south. Undertaken in part to assuage the frequent complaints by members of the South Korean public and media about the heavy footprint the US military maintains on the peninsula, the base relocation remains controversial for many South Koreans.
At the time, Seoul’s official response to these developments was mixed. The departure of the US combat brigade rattled the South Korean armed forces, who worried that additional withdrawals might follow. However, then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was less alarmed. A staunch advocate for greater autonomy, Roh (who left office in 2008 and passed away in 2009) used the occasion to ask Rumsfeld for talks on other reforms to the alliance.
Although current President Moon Jae-in is a protégé of Roh’s and is known to favor changes to the existing military relationship, he is unlikely to want to see US forces depart South Korea entirely. But he is more likely to entertain talk of future troop withdrawals than was his immediate conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Unlike US National Security Advisor John R. Bolton and others in the Trump administration, the current South Korean government has always viewed sanctions and international pressure as a path toward reconciliation with North Korea, not a diplomatic tool for regime change. As in the United States, however, the South Korean civilian and military establishments are known to have different views about this. Going forward, expect the civil-military divide that emerged in 2004 in South Korea to appear again should talk of changing the force posture become real.
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense
Along with ground forces, aircraft, and navy vessels, the US military also currently has a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery deployed in South Korea. The decision to host the controversial American anti-missile defense system was made by the Park administration in 2016. When it became clear that the liberal Moon would win the May 2017 South Korean presidential election, the United States rushed two THAAD launchers to the peninsula in late April. In June 2017, Moon’s office announced it was suspending the deployment of four additional launchers until an environmental study could be completed.
However, after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 28, Moon reversed course and allowed the additional four launchers to join the original two at their base in Seongju in September of last year. US military officials recently complained the Moon government was neglecting the deployment site, which continues to divide the South Korean public. An important pillar of US peninsula defense, the THAAD system remains a major irritant to both Pyongyang and Beijing.
In the highly unlikely (but no longer completely implausible) scenario that both presidents agree to reduce the US military footprint in South Korea as part of a so-called grand bargain with North Korea, don’t expect any combat units or systems to be withdrawn from the peninsula overnight. And don’t expect a public announcement with a date for their redeployment, either. Sound strategic sense as well as bureaucratic inertia dictates that any withdrawal or redeployments would be far, far “over the horizon.”
What about a private agreement between Trump and Kim to redeploy US troops or shut down military bases at some future date—along the lines of Kennedy’s secret Jupiter missile deal with the Soviets? Although not beyond the realm of possibility, the odds of such an agreement also seem remote at this time. For starters, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and the rest of the Pentagon are likely to advise against it on purely military grounds. Strategically, it would also be inconsistent with the administration’s new national security and defense policies, which put a renewed emphasis on great power competition. It’s also doubtful that such a deal could remain secret for long given the present climate in Washington.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, military organizations—and especially alliances—don’t turn on a dime. Military alliances are cumbersome bureaucracies that adjust course slowly. For evidence of this on the Korean Peninsula, one need only look to the (still ongoing) relocation of the US Forces Korea headquarters from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, originally slated for completion in 2008 but now scheduled to be finished around 2020.
Diplomats typically express frustration at the slow pace in which anything gets accomplished within alliances. If you want to get something done quickly, they joke, you’re better off doing it yourself than waiting for everyone to get on board. Because alliances work by consensus, nothing usually happens until everyone agrees. However, sometimes the slowness with which alliances operate can be a virtue. The requirement that each ally’s civilian and military establishments sign off on a specific course of action—something which typically involves considerable debate—prevents sudden policy reversals from occurring. Thus, even in the unlikely event that both Presidents Moon and Trump end up endorsing reductions to the US force posture, their respective military advisors are likely to push back strongly and caution delay.
Aside from the partial or future redeployment of US units or combat systems, what might North Korea ask for? Another possibility—and the one generating the most discussion in Seoul these days—is the so-called “freeze-for-freeze” concept, a proposal previously backed by Moscow and Beijing in which North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons activities in exchange for a halt to future US-South Korean military exercises. While Washington rejected such a deal as recently as last fall, some variant of this proposal is almost certain to come up again at the upcoming summits.
In a highly uncharacteristic move, Kim reportedly expressed his “understanding” that this spring’s Foal Eagle military exercises, initially delayed because of the Winter Olympics, go ahead as planned. But Kim also communicated his expectation that such exercises will be readjusted once the security situation on the peninsula improves. The North Korean regime has previously indicated its willingness to consider suspending nuclear testing in exchange for an end to or scaling down of US-South Korean annual military exercises. The Chinese too are known to favor this option. Thus, if there’s a deal to be had, it’s likely that it will include some version of a freeze-for-freeze proposal.
The contours of such an agreement would be familiar to many long-time Korea watchers. Back in 1992, the George H.W. Bush administration suspended the Team Spirit joint military exercises with South Korea, as part of a strategy to encourage North Korea to accept nuclear inspections. The annual field exercises were suspended again between 1994 and 1996, before being permanently scrapped in 1997. Other US-South Korean military exercises—including Foal Eagle and Ulchi-Freedom Guardian—continue to be held on an annual basis, however. Instead of cancelling these military exercises outright, the United States and South Korea might agree to their gradual reduction over time.
Although the most likely outcome, the freeze-for-freeze concept is potentially also the most dangerous. Coercive diplomacy with nuclear powers is notoriously difficult to pull off. Other than perhaps Iran, it’s hard to think of a case where more bad blood exists than that between North Korea and the United States. Each camp believes the other violated previous deals like the 1994 Agreed Framework. Distrust and suspicion is rampant, raising the risk that each will be quick to assign malicious intent to the other side at the slightest misunderstanding or delay in implementation. In such a climate it doesn’t take much before each side is hurling accusations of violations at the other. Of course, this is not a reason to avoid diplomacy. But it does mean that unless diplomats on both sides are precise and careful, we could be headed back to a world of “bloody nose” scenarios sooner than we’d like.
None of this is to deny the very real possibility that alliance decoupling may as yet happen on the Korean Peninsula. For the first time in the military alliance’s sixty-five-year history, the political conditions necessary for such a development appear ripe. In recent months, Presidents Moon and Trump (albeit for different reasons) have publicly flirted with distancing themselves from each other: the latter by linking US security guarantees to favorable US trade terms; the former by repeatedly signaling he views nuclear entrapment as a greater danger than that of great power abandonment.
But instead of a sudden rupture in the US-South Korean military alliance, it’s much more likely that Washington and Seoul gradually undo elements of the existing security architecture over a period of several years. Of course, reducing the US footprint in South Korea by a few thousand soldiers or scaling back military exercises there is unlikely to fundamentally alter the ability of the United States to deter North Korea in the near to medium term. However, it could signal to Pyongyang (and Beijing) that its strategy of trying to pry Seoul out from under the US extended nuclear deterrence umbrella is working. Whether Kim has the temperament and strategic patience to play the long game and wait it out is anybody’s guess. But for now, at least, any decoupling in the alliance is likely to remain psychological rather than physical.
Image credit: US Forces Korea