war on the rocks

Entry 60: Keep the Allies on Board

March 7, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 60th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I wrote just over 700 words today, which is awesome considering how distracted I was by social media and a couple media interviews.

It’s totally bananas to be writing a book about the origins of a crisis that’s playing out while the writing is happening.  I am literally living through history as I write it.  This might be unprecedented, especially the live-chronicling of it all via the Nuke Your Darlings series.

Today’s big distraction was South Korea’s envoy coming back from Pyongyang after meeting with a very happy looking Kim Jong Un.  The South reported that Kim was open to having a summit meeting with South Korea’s President Moon, and would even be willing to discuss denuclearization directly with the United States.  Puh-lease!  What a farce.

Anyone who’s worked Korea for any period of time knows we’ve seen this story before.  Many times, in fact.  It’s called How to Lose an Ally in 10 Days.  It was clear from the start of the Trump presidency that Kim Jong Un was going to race to secure a nuclear ICBM capable of reaching the United States, which he pulled off last year.

Once Kim had the capability, he was going to proceed with a strategy of dividing the alliance—decoupling South Korea from the United States.  There were many ways to go about it, and Kim chose the one that required the most political finesse and the least bloodshed.  Good for him.  The pundit class (especially me) saw this coming from a mile away.  Kim locks down his ICBM and nuke capability, then starts exploiting the fact that Moon is a progressive who openly signaled a desire for rapprochement with the North when he was elected last May.  At the same time, Kim keeps taking a totally intransigent position toward the United States.

Never mind that North Korea’s summary of the meeting with South Korea mentioned nothing about talking denuclearization with the Washington.  Never mind that a willingness to talk about its nuclear program does not remotely hint at a willingness to denuclearize (they’ve always been willing to talk about their nukes, just not get rid of them).  Never mind that North Korea has always—always—looked upon the South as less than.  And never mind that Vice President Pence issued the world’s most obnoxious response statement, literally repeating all the rhetorical tropes of the administration—comprehensive denuclearization, maximum pressure stays, and all options are on the table.

The problem here is that nothing about the strategic situation has changed!  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there’s an opportunity for the United States and North Korea to meet.  I’m glad Trump said optimistic things instead of insulting things.  And I’m glad that one consequence of all this diplomatic pageantry will be putting an end to the nuke crisis (for like the third time since January).

But there will be another, possibly worse, crisis in the not too distant future because the strategic situation hasn’t changed and all the same people are in charge of policy on all sides.  It doesn’t take a genius to know that North Korea still has strong incentives to hold onto its nukes; it will never give them up.  80 percent of the Trump administration has the same view as Pence when it comes to North Korea—denuclearization or war.

What has changed—and this is my concern—is South Korea’s willingness to do their own thing even when it’s totally contrary to the U.S. strategy they claim to fully support.  Maximum pressure is foolish and dangerous, so I’m glad the South is repudiating it in practice, but as long as that’s the U.S. position (and it is), then the alliance is at risk.  Add to that South Korea’s pending response to Trump’s tariffs and the pending renegotiation of the always contentious alliance burden-sharing agreement and you have a situation where the Trump administration has failed at the most basic responsibility of U.S. Asia policy—keep the allies on board.

The Trump administration has been maneuvered into agreeing to things it declared it would never agree to—meet with North Korea without preconditions, suspend alliance military exercises, and require nothing of North Korea other than not test missiles.  These were unreasonable positions to take in the first instance, so shame on the Trump team for taking them, but it’s embarrassing to be forced to do things you said you’d never do (even though they’re what you should’ve done) because your ally and your enemy outsmarted you.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.