The Trump Administration Struggles to Defend Its Unruly Foreign Policy

July 29, 2018

The Trump Administration Struggles to Defend Its Unruly Foreign Policy


The first hint of a turbulent day in U.S. foreign policy appeared in a one-sentence statement distributed by e-mail on Wednesday afternoon. Just a week after President Trump invited the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to a second summit, in Washington, this fall, the White House announced that the meeting was being postponed.

“The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year,” the national-security adviser, John Bolton, said in a statement.

The Administration had faced scathing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over the invitation, especially when details are still scant over what happened at the first summit, in Helsinki, on July 16th. The proposed Putin visit to the Oval Office would also have been on the eve of the high-stakes U.S. midterm elections, in which the Russians are reportedly meddling again. Last week, the director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, warned of “ongoing, pervasive efforts” by the Russians “to undermine our democracy.”

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Messy Trump at work

More broadly, questions have grown since Helsinki—and other recent Trump summits with North Korea, the G-7 economic allies, and the twenty-eight other NATO nations—about Trump’s unruly U.S. foreign policy. The optics in Washington are not good.

Minutes after the Bolton statement, Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chastised President Trump during a hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The President had “appeared submissive and deferential” alongside Putin, Corker said. He has deliberately “used false information to turn public opinion” against the NATO military alliance, a cornerstone of U.S. security. In meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Corker said the President had legitimized “one of the most ruthless leaders on the planet.” He had also taken to issuing “off-the-cuff” challenges to basic principles of the global order. For months, Trump has been “antagonizing our friends and placating those who clearly wish us ill.” The Helsinki summit is “perhaps the most troubling example of this emerging reality,” he said.

“From where we sit,” Corker, who is retiring, added, “it appears that, in a ready-fire-aim fashion, the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go.” America’s top lawmakers, he warned, “are filled with serious doubts” about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. He appealed to Pompeo, saying, “Help convince us that those at the White House know what they are doing,” and “I can’t say it more forcefully. We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on.”

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Senator Bob Menendez

Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee, chimed in that—ten days after the Helsinki summit—U.S. lawmakers had heard more about what happened in the private session between Trump and Putin from Russian statements than from White House briefings. “We don’t know what the truth is, because nobody else was in the room where it happened,” the New Jersey Democrat said. In three hours of grilling, Pompeo repeatedly claimed that the President had fully briefed him. But he offered few insights and sidestepped straightforward questions about exactly what Trump and Putin discussed.

The White House appears to be scrambling to prove it has a coherent foreign policy. An hour before Pompeo testified on the Hill, the State Department issued the “Crimea Declaration.” The United States, it pronounced, will not recognize Russia’s strategic annexation of Crimea, in 2014, after its invasion of Ukraine. Citing the United Nations charter, dating back seven decades, the State Department noted, “No country can change the borders of another by force.”

That statement contradicts what Trump has repeatedly suggested since his first run for public office, in 2016. At the G-7 summit last month, in Canada, he reportedly said the majority of Crimea’s residents “would rather be with Russia.”

The Administration is also gyrating on Russian election interference in the United States. On Sunday night, the President tweeted that claims of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election are “all a big hoax”—dismissing the unanimous findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and Coats’s statement last week. On Wednesday, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo insisted that Trump fully accepts intelligence reports of Russian interference in 2016. He has “a complete and proper understanding of what happened,” Pompeo said. “I know—I briefed him on it for over a year,” when he headed the C.I.A.

Now America’s top diplomat, Pompeo claimed that the Administration had taken a “staggering” array of punitive actions against Russia, including the expulsion of sixty Russian spies, closing Russian consulates, and the sale of defensive military material to Ukraine. The President is “well aware of the challenges that Russia poses” today, Pompeo said. (Neither the Secretary nor the State Department speechwriters caught the erroneous reference in his opening statement to more than two hundred U.S. sanctions imposed “on Russian entities and individuals in the Trump Administration.”)

The Administration’s attempt to appear tougher on Putin may, in fact, be a response to Russian reticence. On Tuesday, the Kremlin showed tepid interest in the invitation to a second summit. “It seems to me that, for now, it would be right to wait for the dust to settle before having a businesslike discussion of all issues,” Putin’s foreign-policy adviser, Yury Ushakov, told the news agency Interfax. “But not now.”

Russia is not the only Trump foreign-policy issue facing questions. On Wednesday, Pompeo engaged in testy exchanges with several senators on issues ranging from Syria to arms-control treaties. The Administration is struggling, in particular, to prove that its bold decision to meet with the North Korean leader in Singapore last month is leading to progress. So far, there is still no formal agreement on what “denuclearization” actually means. Pressed on whether North Korea is still advancing its nuclear capabilities, Pompeo refused to answer the question—or say publicly that Pyongyang has at least frozen its weapons program. The Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey charged that that there is “no verifiable evidence” that North Korea is keeping its promise.

“I am afraid that, at this point, the United States, the Trump Administration, is being taken for a ride,” Markey said. Pompeo, who has travelled to Pyongyang three times since Easter to take the lead on diplomacy, shot back, “Fear not, senator.” But he offered little detail to counter reports of White House frustration with North Korea’s stalling tactics.

“After nearly three hours, here is my takeaway,” Menendez said at the end of the session. “This Administration is increasingly not transparent. It’s not transparent as to what takes place at these summits . . . I really don’t believe, Mr. Secretary, you know what happened during the President’s two-plus-hour conversation with President Putin. And I really don’t know much more about the summit after sitting here for three hours than I did before.”

The Administration did make tentative progress on Wednesday to avert a trade war with America’s closest allies in Europe. In a surprise development, Trump and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced new negotiations on trade barriers and a pledge, for now, to defer new tariffs. “While we are working on this, we will not go against the spirit of this agreement unless either party terminates the negotiation,” Trump said at a hastily organized appearance with Juncker.

Like the nuclear talks with North Korea and the summitry with Putin, however, the agreement with the European Commission on tariffs contains a big idea but is still short on details—with tough negotiations ahead. The Administration has yet to ink a final deal to resolve any major issue.

The Cinema Society Hosts The Screening Of "The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee"

US-North Korea Singapore Summit– A Long Journey to Peace Ahead

July 26, 2018

US-North Korea Singapore Summit– A Long Journey to Peace Ahead

by Charles K Armstrong, Columbia University

“Dismantling a 70-year-old system of conflict and confrontation is an enormous and complex task. As Pompeo rightly stated, North Korean denuclearisation will take a long time. But the goal to which Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington have committed is not just denuclearisation: the goal is a lasting and stable peace. Building that will take a great deal more patience than we have tended to see in Washington.”--Charles Armstrong

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The 12 June US–DPRK summit meeting was vastly oversold, not least by US President Donald Trump. The day after the summit, Trump tweeted that the North Korean nuclear threat had been removed, even though Pyongyang had taken no verifiable action toward eliminating its nuclear program. On 12 July, one month after the summit, Trump brandished a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who declared their Singapore meeting ‘the start of a meaningful journey’ and said he was looking forward to their next meeting. Trump took this as a reflection of the ‘great progress’ that the two countries had made despite the frustrations that had beset US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his recent visit to Pyongyang. Six weeks after the Singapore summit, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has not diminished, US and UN sanctions against North Korea remain in place, and the US government continues to forbid US citizens from visiting North Korea (and vice versa) without special permission.

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Dismantling a 70-year-old system of conflict and confrontation is an enormous and complex task. But tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased and that is a major step forward in relations.

Still, despite the largely critical coverage from the Western press — the media in Asia, including in South Korea, has generally been more positive — it is far too early to tell whether the Singapore summit was a success or a failure. Kim’s ‘nice note’ is correct: the meeting of the two leaders was only the start of a journey and was the beginning of a long and unpredictable process of normalising relations between two countries that have been in conflict for 70 years.

As critics were quick to point out, the joint declaration was remarkably vague — not much of a ‘deal’ at all. Trump offered North Korea unspecified ‘security guarantees’ in exchange for which Kim Jong-un ‘reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’. The one concrete action proposed was the return of US soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. Here some progress has been made: according to a US official who was present at the North Korea–US talks on 16 July, North Korean has offered to send back the remains of over 50 US servicemen on 27 July, which is the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice.

The summit was oversold in North Korea as well. The Trump–Kim meeting was covered extensively in the DPRK media, and the usually virulent anti-US propaganda has softened. There has been a new focus on economic development in recent months, and the summit was supposed to be a breakthrough moment that allowed North Korea to shift from nuclear weapons to rebuilding its economy. But the economy still languishes; according to the Bank of Korea in Seoul, North Korea’s GDP shrank by 3.5 per cent in 2017 — its worst performance in two decades. On 20 July, Pompeo reiterated the US position that sanctions could not be lifted until North Korea takes further steps toward denuclearisation, and he criticised Russia and China for failing to enforce sanctions on North Korean oil imports.

As with US–Russia relations, there can be a sizable gap between statements from the White House and the actual policies of the administration. While Trump and Kim (as well as South Korean President Moon Jae-in) emphasise peace and cooperation in more general terms, Pompeo and others in the administration speak the old language of CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program) as a precondition for any change in the US–North Korea relationship. These two approaches may be complementary, but more often they appear contradictory and confusing. Trump himself seemed to walk back on his bullish statements on North Korean denuclearisation by announcing on 20 July the ‘unusual and extraordinary threat’ North Korea still poses to the United States.

In the meantime, relations among the countries of Northeast Asia are moving forward — with or without a dramatic change in US–DPRK ties. Russia and China have so far resisted US calls to block oil deliveries to North Korea. Kim’s three meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in less than two months reflect the rapidly warming ties between North Korea and China after several years of cool relations. Russian media recently reported plans for a Kim–Putin summit. President Moon spoke to the Russian lower house on 21 June — the first South Korean president to make an official visit to Russia since 1999 — where he called for greater cooperation between Russia and the two Koreas on economic development and denuclearisation.

On the Korean Peninsula itself, the Moon administration remains upbeat about relations with the North three months after the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom, which called for a peace agreement to replace the Korean War armistice by the end of this year. Reunions of Korean families separated by the North–South conflict are scheduled for August. Joint inspection has started for reconnecting North–South railway lines. But only so much can be done while North Korea is under heavy UN sanctions. South Korea has requested (and received) special permission from the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee to allow the equipment and materials for communication between the two Koreas’ militaries. Establishing liaison offices between the Seoul and Pyongyang governments, another goal of the Panmunjom Summit, faces similar sanctions obstacles.

Dismantling a 70-year-old system of conflict and confrontation is an enormous and complex task. As Pompeo rightly stated, North Korean denuclearisation will take a long time. But the goal to which Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington have committed is not just denuclearisation: the goal is a lasting and stable peace. Building that will take a great deal more patience than we have tended to see in Washington.

Charles K Armstrong is The Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University and author of The Koreas.

Foreign Policy: The Singapore Summit’s Uncertainty

June 25, 2018

Foreign Policy: The Singapore Summit’s Uncertainty

by Richard N. Haass–haass-2018-06

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Donald Trump’s depiction of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a great success that solved the nuclear problem could make it tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure Kim. Weakening the prospect of achieving one’s goals is not the mark of a strong negotiator.


NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump returned from his short summit meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an exultant mood. “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Trump tweeted. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He subsequently told reporters, “I have solved that problem.”

There is only one catch: what Trump claimed was untrue. The nuclear threat posed by North Korea remains undiminished. The joint statement issued by the two leaders was as brief – just 391 words – as it was vague.

The statement was far more about aspirations than accomplishments. North Korea committed only “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Missing was any definition of what denuclearization might entail, a timeline for implementation, or a reference to how any actions would be verified. Other issues related to nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles, were not even mentioned. Thus far, at least, the agreement with North Korea compares unfavorably to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump denounced – and then renounced a month before meeting Kim.

This is not to argue that the Singapore summit had no value. At least for now, bilateral relations are in a better place than they were a year ago, when North Korea was conducting nuclear and missile tests, and observers (including me) were busy calculating the chances that the two countries would be making war rather than peace. And, looking forward, there is, in principle, the possibility that the United States and North Korea will be able to reach agreement on the many relevant issues and details that the Singapore summit statement left out.

But turning this possibility into reality will be extraordinarily difficult. There are many reasons to doubt whether North Korea will ever give up weaponry that, more than anything else, explains America’s willingness to take it seriously and treat it as something of an equal. In addition, the experience of Ukraine, a country that gave up its nuclear weapons, only to see the world do nothing when Russia annexed Crimea, hardly provides a reason for Kim Jong-un to follow suit. Much the same could be said of Libya, given Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fate.

There is also good reason to doubt that North Korea, arguably the world’s most closed and secretive country, would ever permit the sort of intrusive international inspections that would be required to verify that it had complied with undertakings spelled out in some future pact.

Trump seems to think that Kim can be swayed not simply by threats and pressure, but by flattery and promises as well. The White House released a four-minute video that showcased Kim as someone who could be a great historical figure if only he would fundamentally change. The video also went to great lengths to show what North Korea could gain economically were it to meet US demands. The president even spoke of the North’s potential as a venue for real-estate development and tourism.

What seems not to have occurred to Trump is that such a future holds more peril than promise to someone whose family has ruled with an iron grip for three generations. A North Korea open to Western businessmen might soon find itself penetrated by Western ideas. Popular unrest would be sure to follow.

Trump emphasizes the importance of personal relationships, and he claimed to have developed one with Kim in a matter of hours. More than once, he spoke of the trust he had for a leader with a record of killing off those (including an uncle and a brother) he deemed his enemies. All of this turned Ronald Reagan’s maxim – “trust, but verify” – on its head, to something like “Don’t verify, but trust.”

In fact, some of Trump’s post-summit remarks have actually weakened the prospect of achieving his goals. His depiction of the summit as a great success that solved the nuclear problem will make it that much tougher to maintain international support for the economic sanctions that are still needed to pressure North Korea. Trump also did himself no favor by unilaterally announcing that the US would no longer conduct what he described as “provocative” war games, also known as military exercises meant to ensure readiness and enhance deterrence. In so doing, he not only alarmed several US allies, but also gave away what he could have traded for something from North Korea.

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The danger, of course, is that subsequent negotiations will fail, for all these reasons, to bring about the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea that the US has said must happen soon. Trump would likely then accuse Kim of betraying his trust.

In that case, the US would have three options. It could accept less than full denuclearization, an outcome that Trump and his top aides have said they would reject. It could impose even stricter sanctions, to which China and Russia are unlikely to sign up. Or it could reintroduce the threat of military force, which South Korea, in particular, would resist.

But if Trump concludes that diplomacy has failed, he could nonetheless opt for military action, a course John Bolton suggested just before becoming national security adviser. This would hardly be the legacy that Trump intended for the Singapore summit, but it remains more possible than his optimistic tweets would lead one to believe.

Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Foreign Policy: The Despot and The Diplomat

June 22, 2018

The Despot and The Diplomat

by Christopher R. Hill

With his effusive praise of Kim Jong-un’s leadership and North Korea’s economic potential, Donald Trump has abandoned any pretense that the US has a broader set of values to promote. Whether this approach works to advance peace will depend on the diplomacy that follows.

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DENVER – Back in 2005, when I was the United States’ lead negotiator at the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, I looked at the instructions I received for my first meeting, a Chinese-hosted banquet that included a North Korean delegation. If there was any toasting (not unheard of at Chinese banquets), I was not to join in. Apparently, I was expected to sit there, without touching my glass, glowering with arms folded until everyone else had placed theirs back on the table. Later, when I visited North Korea for the first time, I was instructed not to smile at my hosts. Apparently, I was expected to offer only angry stares.

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Donald Trump has obviously modified those instructions. In fact, with his unending praise of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, his clumsy, impromptu salute of one of Kim’s generals, and his endorsement of all things North Korean (especially the potential for beachfront property development), Trump has all but abandoned any pretense that the US promotes a broader set of values. But while Trump may have overshot the mark, the idea that the US delegation should sit with glasses untouched during a toast also strikes the wrong tone.

In September 1995, during the final month of the Bosnian War, the US delegation to peace negotiations, led by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, arrived in Belgrade for talks with Serbia’s dictator, Slobodan Milošević. According to Milošević, he could not compel the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy weapons and lift the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo. He asked Holbrooke to meet with the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, both of whom were later convicted of committing war crimes. Holbrooke asked where they were. “Over there in that villa,” Milošević replied. “Can I call for them?”

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Ambassador Richard Hoolbroke–A Giant of American Diplomacy

Read this tribute:

Holbrooke hastily brought our delegation together for a quick parley. “Should we meet them?” he asked me. “And if we do, should I shake their hands?” Thinking about the hundreds of thousands of Sarajevans – the many who had been murdered and those facing starvation as a result of the continuing siege – I replied, “Shake their hands and let’s get this over with and go home.” We did. The siege of Sarajevo was lifted the next day.

Whether shaking a hand helps or not, negotiating while shaking a fist has little record of success. During this year’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to meet with the North Korean delegation. Perhaps to cover his back at home, Pence delivered what were then the usual tough-sounding talking points before the meeting. The North Koreans promptly canceled, as if to ask, What would be the point?

During the period I dealt with the six-party talks, I avoided adding my voice to the anti-North Korean invective. I knew that soon – often every other week – I would have to meet them again, and while a display of moxie might help me in Washington, it would not help at the tip of the spear, where it was my job to negotiate away the North Koreans’ nuclear ambitions. There is a big difference between talking tough on television talk shows and sitting across from the North Koreans. Direct diplomacy is a serious means to a serious end. Posturing from a distance is not part of it.

Sometimes body language is hard to get right. As US ambassador to Iraq, the instructions I received from Washington rarely came with any commensurate sense of responsibility for the outcome. I was told that my job included helping the Iraqi opposition rid themselves of then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. US officials reveled in their amped-up toughness in Washington meeting rooms, like high school athletes banging on the lockers before a big game. But when they actually came out on the field and met with Maliki, they gave him no reason to believe they wanted anything but the best for him.

I would sit in such meetings watching Maliki glance over at me, wondering why I had previously warned him of diminishing US government patience with his autocratic rule and dire consequences. Meanwhile, the visitors from Washington made points that were so subtle and nuanced that Maliki would have needed a decoding device to comprehend their real meaning.

Any diplomat must be purposeful in a negotiation on behalf of his or her country, which means being clear-eyed about the desired outcome and the best way to achieve it. In Singapore, the issue was the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Nothing else really mattered.

Time will tell whether the North Koreans reciprocate Trump’s professed affection for them. Kim gave away little, and was probably stunned when, for the first time ever, a US president accepted at face value North Korea’s supposed anxiety about US joint military exercises with South Korea (which the North Koreans know to be defensive in purpose). That was too large a concession, and, one way or another, it will have to be taken back. More broadly, a framework for peace and security that includes all the directly affected parties – South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China – will need to be designed.

Similarly, North Korea’s human rights record, one of the world’s worst, will have to be taken up in the future – perhaps, as I signaled during the six-party talks, as a component of eventual diplomatic relations. But, for now, the North Korean nuclear program must be at the top of any negotiating agenda.

Whether Trump’s approach actually works with North Korea will depend on the diplomacy that follows the Singapore summit. Over to you, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

*Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, a US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is Chief Advisor to the Chancellor for Global Engagement and Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.

If the US military withdraws from Korea, China will be a big loser

June 20, 2018

If the US military withdraws from Korea, China will be a big loser

by Michael Heng

Michael Heng says while Beijing has good reason to be wary of American hegemony in the region, it must realise that a US military withdrawal would encourage unwanted developments – nuclear-armed neighbours in a unified Korea and Japan.

The Kim-Trump summit in Singapore has reduced the danger of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It is good for peace in the near future and it calms stock markets. 

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At the same time, it is a big media event for Kim Jong-un. It will no doubt boost his international standing and strengthen his position at home. North Korea is the biggest winner, thanks to the calculating Kim and the disappointing Donald Trump. The immediate gain is the likely relaxation of economic sanctions against the country.

Other than these two points, one has to fall back on faith in Trump’s instinct that North Korea is earnest in denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula. He seems to have taken a sudden liking to Kim, someone he described as a “madman” after the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned during a visit to North Korea.

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Donald Trump–America’s Showman has forgotten that, in politics, interests are more decisive than personal relationships

Somehow, Trump has forgotten that, in politics, interests are more decisive than personal relationships. But that is understandable as he is more a showman than a politician.

The joint declaration merely reaffirms the same commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

Watch: What’s in the Trump-Kim agreement


As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, there was “nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programmes, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear programme, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles”.

If this is not disturbing enough, Trump announced after the summit that he wants to remove all US troops from South Korea, a major strategic move which the Pentagon had rejected outright for years despite Pyongyang’s repeated demands. Trump’s seemingly offhand announcement has perplexed American allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, and confused its own military establishment.

Why is the announcement so disturbing? Consider the following scenario. Supreme Leader Kim, aware that Trump’s current term of office would end in 2½ years, could embark on a cosmetic programme of denuclearisation, obliging Trump to respond by withdrawing the US military presence in South Korea.

Meanwhile, Trump’s successor could be boxed in by his vague agreement with Kim.

Watch: US and South Korea conduct joint military drills in September last year


The retreat of US military forces would set alarm bells ringing in Japan. Political realities are more important than promises and treaties. If Japan were threatened, what should Tokyo do? The responsible thing would be to rely on itself, to build up its military and create a home-grown nuclear umbrella.

The biggest loser in the new situation would be South Korea. A nuclear-armed North Korea would easily impose demands on a South Korea without American military protection. The demands could range from reunification on Pyongyang’s terms to generous economic assistance from Seoul.

A US departure from South Korea would weaken South Korea to the extent that it may have to give in to the terms dictated by North Korea on reunification. A reunified Korea may well turn out to be a second reunified Vietnam, but with nuclear warheads. Taking either a short or long view of history, there is very little reason to believe that such a Korea would prove to be a friendly neighbour to China.

Therefore, another big loser would be China, North Korea’s supposedly good friend. If Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, could at times prove unpredictable for Beijing, the current supreme leader has exhibited features of a 21st-century Frankenstein. His modus operandi has often proved to be beyond the understanding of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a seasoned world-class political player.


It is an open secret that there has been no real fraternal relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea, as evidenced by the years of estrangement.

The recent summit in Singapore has not produced any substantive conditions to inspire real confidence that the North Korean leader will follow through on his claimed denuclearisation programme. North Korea’s failure to dismantle its nuclear weapons would represent a persistent nuclear threat on China’s doorstep. However, this is contrary to the view expressed by retired US Navy admiral James Stavridis, in a Bloomberg article: “For Beijing, the best outcome would be an agreed framework that puts off any actual relinquishment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons into the distant future. This will ensure the long-term survival of the Kim regime and the continuation of a divided peninsula.”

Added to this is the possibility of the emergence of Japan as a nuclear power in the wake of a US military withdrawal from South Korea. Japan, with its remarkable technological base, can rebuild its military to beyond its proclaimed self-defence needs and produce more deadly warheads and powerful delivery systems than North Korea within a short period,

“A series of missteps in the wake of the Singapore summit could lead to northeast Asia degenerating into a powder keg. That is certainly not in the interests of China and the rest of Asia, or, for that matter, in the interests of world peace.”–Michael Heng

Beijing is right to be wary of the hegemonic schemes of Uncle Sam, especially in view of the latter’s track record during the cold war period. But that does not mean a total US military withdrawal from South Korea and Japan would always be in China’s best interests.

The fact of the matter is that US hegemony has produced two benign by-products for China. Number one is that Japan has stuck very close to Article 9 of its constitution and remains non-nuclear. Number two is that the US foiled attempts by Chiang Kai-shek to build nuclear bombs in Taiwan.

The Chinese have a wise saying, ju an si wei, which means to be on guard against possible dangers in times of peace. A series of missteps in the wake of the Singapore summit could lead to northeast Asia degenerating into a powder keg. That is certainly not in the interests of China and the rest of Asia, or, for that matter, in the interests of world peace.

Michael Heng is a retired professor who held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia

North Korea talks deepen Japan’s dilemma

June 20, 2018

North Korea talks deepen Japan’s dilemma

While Trump and Kim warm up ties, Tokyo is left in the cold

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump at their joint news conference at the White House in Washington on June 7   © Reuters

Japan was clearly marginalized in the run-up to and during the June 12 summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in Singapore. The dynamics suggest that Tokyo will not play any significant role in the follow-up negotiations.

There is no way to obfuscate these hard facts with any political or diplomatic sleight of hand. President Donald Trump promised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japanese interests in the region would not be ignored. Such interests were possibly mentioned in the Trump-Kim dialogue. But if so, with what degree of priority or weight?

Regardless, Japan should not just wring its hands in futile despair. Instead, Tokyo should use the momentum and debate generated by the Trump-Kim talks as an opportunity to build a new national consensus on some fundamental questions

The long-running national angst over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals is of great political and emotional importance in Japan. But it is of no consequence to the U.S. Trump has generally dismissed human rights concerns that have dogged North Korea’s regime. American security appears to be his sole focus.

Nor are Japanese abductees of concern to any other country. Even South Korea, which also has abductees being held in North Korea, is uninterested.

It is politically impossible for Japan to entirely give up on the abductees. But the issue should not be allowed to dominate Japanese strategic calculations. East Asia is on the cusp of a major strategic shift. There is no room for political sentimentality.

At present, Japan does not figure highly in North Korean calculations. Pyongyang clearly believes that if it can deal directly with the U.S. and South Korea, Japan will have no choice but to follow or be isolated.

Indeed, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met with Trump, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has dispatched Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s official head of state, to Moscow.

Tokyo’s immediate priority should be to secure a meeting between Abe and Kim. The latter is reported to be willing to meet Abe.

If such a meeting comes about — which is not to be taken for granted — giving too much prominence to abductees will only hand the initiative to Kim. Abe will be reduced to the position of supplicant: asking for a favor and promising aid if the favor is granted.

Aid to North Korea will not give Japan leverage. South Korea under Moon is eager to promote economic ties with the North, as was clear in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration’s endorsement of North-South declarations adopted in 2000 and 2007. The latter spells out North-South economic cooperation in detail. In any case, if the U.S.-North Korean talks progress, Japan may be compelled to provide aid to the North.

After the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, North Korea has been recognized as a de facto nuclear weapon state and a legitimate interlocutor of the U.S. At present, Japan has no real option but to rely on American leave and favor.

This is not a sustainable position for a major country. Tokyo’s longer-term order of business should be to broaden its options within the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

This would not require any loosening of the alliance, which would be a disaster, not just for Japan but for all of East Asia. In regional eyes, the fundamental and irreplaceable purpose of the U.S.-Japan alliance is to anchor the U.S. in East Asia. No other U.S. alliance can perform this function.

Broadening options within the alliance will require a level of leadership, creativity and agility that has up to now been absent from Japanese diplomacy. It means moving away from dependency to a genuine partnership.

Abe has already taken significant steps in this direction. More needs to be done. In this effort, his drive to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution to place the legal status of the Self-Defense Force on a clearer footing, while desirable, is only a distraction from the core issue.

More fundamentally, Japan needs a new consensus on the meaning of Japanese nationalism in the 21st century. This requires a national debate on issues that most Japanese do not even want to think about.

Denial is a luxury Japan can no longer afford. The choices are not between defining Japanese interests almost solely in terms of American interests, or the militaristic nationalism of the early Showa era of the early 20th century.

As long as Japan refuses to confront history squarely, the country’s extreme right will be able to occupy political space by default. This constrains Japanese strategic thinking and keeps Tokyo’s diplomatic initiatives hostage to China and South Korea.

A second fundamental issue is whether Trump’s “America First” attitude is an aberration that will pass with a new administration; or an extreme symptom of a new national mood that may subside somewhat but will persist over the long term. Wishful thinking is another luxury Japan can no longer afford.

Follow-up negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea are not going to be about complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as initially expected. That may be discussed, but the talks will really be about arms control. That is not the same thing. The focal point of future discussions will be how to maintain deterrence at lower levels of tension and less risk of miscalculation.

Image result for mike pompeo and kim jong un

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that America’s main concern is to deal with Pyongyang’s long-range missiles that can directly threaten the U.S. mainland. That leaves Japan vulnerable.

Of course, Japan is already vulnerable to medium-range North Korean missiles. But if the U.S. reaches agreement on long-range missiles, it will not be a return to the status quo ante.

If the U.S. is not directly threatened by a North Korea that is now recognized as a de facto nuclear weapon state, the credibility of American extended deterrence will inevitably be questioned. In extreme circumstances, would San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo?

The U.S. would undoubtedly try to reassure Japan that it will. If the Japanese people believe American reassurances only because they have no other option except to believe, that is only a form of self-delusion.

The credibility of U.S. extended deterrence over Japan will in any case be questioned by Pyongyang and, more importantly, by Beijing when China acquires a credible second-strike capability. Can a nuclear weapon state be deterred by conventional means?

Even the U.S. does not seem to think so. The 30-year old U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement is unique in allowing Japan to reprocess nuclear material, a privilege the U.S. has granted to no other country. Why?

What is at stake is existential. For centuries, a central element of Japanese and Korean national identity has been refusal to accept permanent subordination in the Chinese regional order, in Japan’s case at least since the 16th century when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having unified Japan, invaded Korea in defiance of that order.

Subordination also must mean an inexorable loosening of, and an eventual end to, the U.S.-Japan alliance. But a five-way nuclear balance in East Asia between the U.S., China, Japan, and the two Koreas would establish a stable multipolar regional order that preserves maneuver space for everyone.

South Korea and even Australia have already been openly debating their own nuclear capability in their respective alliances with the U.S. It is time for such a debate in Japan.

For Japan — the only nation that has suffered a nuclear attack — it will be a wrenchingly painful debate. But it cannot be avoided for much longer. The choice is Japan’s alone. But the outcome will determine the future of East Asia.

Bilahari Kausikan is a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current chairman of the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore. These are his personal views.