Despite much anticipation and concern, President Donald Trump wrapped up his East Asia trip without making unexpected moves. Although Trump realized economic gains by striking multiple business deals with Asian partners, he made little progress in achieving his primary objective of taking one step further toward resolving the North Korean nuclear problem.
1 As Trump put more focus on economic cooperation between the United States and China, discussion on implementing secondary sanctions against China and triggering the “Super 301” provision was avoided. Washington later re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, but this did not have a significant impact on the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem. The political landscape of Northeast Asia is in tumult once again after North Korea test-fired another intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwaseong 15, on November 29. While the United Nations Security Council has adopted a new resolution, UNSCR 2397,2 the security environment on the Korean Peninsula remains much the same as before Trump’s trip.
However, Trump’s East Asia trip contributed to raising three meaningful questions. First, does the Trump administration have solutions to the North Korean nuclear problem? Second, what is the difference between his administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific? Third, will Seoul and Washington be able to coordinate their differences in tackling the detailed tasks aimed at fostering the continuous and stable evolution of the US-South Korea alliance? If the Trump administration has substantive measures to solve the aforementioned questions, the security landscape on the peninsula would likely be stabilized and improve over time. If, however, policy is to be formulated and implemented in an impromptu manner without systematic strategic considerations, uncertainties on the Korean Peninsula is expected to deepen.
This article examines how the political landscape of the Korean Peninsula changed after Trump’s East Asia visit. Additionally, the challenges ahead in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and advancing the ROK-US alliance are discussed. To this end, the outcomes of Trump’s state visits to South Korea, China, and Japan are evaluated first, followed by an assessment of a shifting political landscape on the Korean Peninsula after Trump’s trip. Finally, the outlook for the future regional order in Northeast Asia and the tasks for the US-South Korea alliance in shaping it are addressed.
Trump’s East Asia Trip
Trump’s trip in early November attracted much attention from the international community in many respects. First, the attention centered on how Washington will nurture a new US-China relationship with the beginning of Xi Jinping’s second term. Since taking office, Trump has been different from his predecessors in dealing with China, explicitly pointing out that China is the main culprit in the weakening of the US economy and vowing to retaliate against China for its unfair trade practices and currency manipulation. He also underscored China’s role in resolving the North Korean nuclear problems, saying that China is not taking due responsibility regarding the issue. Some also eyed the possibility of a big US-China deal to break the North Korean nuclear deadlock, as Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state, mentioned in an interview.3 Central to the big deal is the idea of recognizing China’s influence in North Korea in return for China leading the efforts at denuclearizing North Korea. Concerns were also raised that sensitive issues such as the reduction of US forces stationed in South Korea. The prospect for mounting pressure on South Korea and Japan in the coming years drew much media attention. Additionally, how Trump’s tendency not to make any concessions on trade issues would contribute to creating tensions between the United States and its East Asian allies was a major concern. But none of these concerns made for accurate predictions of Trump’s moves during his East Asia trip.
The US-Japan summit had no game-changing implications, but provided the two sides with an opportunity to reaffirm their shared foreign policy agenda. Trade relations attracted the most attention as a key issue in the summit. Trump pledged to “build fair, free, and mutually beneficial trade relations,” meaning that Washington will endeavor to reduce the US trade deficit with Japan by creating conditions favorable for US exports in the Japanese market. Trump appears to have toned down his critical stance on the Japanese government’s trade policy, which seems to be due to Abe’s promise to invest more in the United States in the years ahead.
Trump and Abe reaffirmed their shared views on the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problems. Asserting that there is little utility in pursuing dialogue with Pyongyang at the moment, Abe said that it is time to place maximum pressure on the Kim regime. Trump concurred with Abe by stating that the era of "strategic patience" is over, and the two heads of state pledged to scale up pressure on Pyongyang.
The last point worth noting about the US-Japan summit is the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. As reiterated at the US-South Korea summit meeting and APEC summit, Trump and Abe agreed to promote a "free and open Indo-Pacific." The Indo-Pacific strategy, which is the US-proposed regional strategy, transcends what Obama envisioned with his Asia “rebalance” strategy. And the core idea of Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy is to make the United States, Japan, Australia, and India lead the efforts to promote the rule of law and freedom of navigation throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Many believe that Trump’s strategic calculation to constrain the rise of China in the region is behind the Indo-Pacific strategy, which will likely be adopted as the centerpiece of the US regional strategy.
US-South Korea Summit
The US-South Korea summit proceeded fairly smoothly. Many saw the summit as quite successful in that Trump reveled in economic gains while giving the South Korean public an impression that he cares deeply about the South Korean government’s concern over the escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Trump and President Moon Jae-in consolidated their friendship through their visit to the US Army base in Pyeongtaek and their summit meeting. And Trump’s address to South Korea’s National Assembly was well received by the South Korean public.4
First, in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, Trump underscored the importance of the denuclearization of North Korea through dialogue, refraining from mentioning military options. It appears to be part of his administration’s effort to consider the South Korean government’s concerns over the escalation of military tensions on the Korean Peninsula expressed since September. The direction of US-South Korean cooperation in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem seems to be coordinated to some extent. The two sides agreed to pursue the resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem through peaceful means, refraining from adopting military options while scaling up pressure on Pyongyang. The South Korean government’s anti-war stance seems to be reflected in the agreement.
Additionally, issues pertaining to US-South Korea trade relations were addressed during the summit. Contrary to the predictions made prior to Trump’s visit, the South Korean government faced less pressure from the United States than was initially expected. The two sides settled the issue for the time being by focusing on how to amend the US-South Korea free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) and reaffirming their commitment to the promotion of fair trade. In particular, Trump’s address to South Korea’s National Assembly linked South Korea’s growth with the US-South Korean alliance. As occurred in Japan, it appears that Trump’s friendly gesture and remarks were affected by the South Korean government’s promise to increase its investment in the United States. In fact, South Korean government agencies and companies announced plans to invest $57.5 billion over the next four years, including an investment plan worth $17.3 billion and an energy purchasing plan worth $22.8 billion.
Trump’s visit to China was arguably the highlight of his East Asia trip. Xi offered an unprecedented personal welcome to Trump including the reception at the Forbidden City. What made the summit noteworthy was that the two heads of state met following the 19th Communist Party Congress during which Xi sought to consolidate his domestic power base. But without any breakthrough on North Korea’s nuclear issue, Trump instead stressed the unsustainability of China’s unfair trade practices. As a result, the US-China summit meeting ended with Trump’s gains on economic cooperation: the two sides signed an economic cooperation plan worth $253.5 billion, including Chinese investment in the US energy industry, purchase of US electronic components, formation of a US-China joint fund, purchase of 300 Boeing aircrafts, and expansion of car imports from Tesla.
Although Trump called upon China to put stronger pressure on Pyongyang to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem,5 the summit ended without specifying what new sanctions are to be adopted by Beijing against Pyongyang. Trump refrained from escalating his aggressive rhetoric on the North Korean nuclear issue, for instance, by suggesting imposing secondary sanctions and triggering the “Super 301” provision. This is contrary to the US announcement that the top priority of Trump’s East Asia trip is to explore ways to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Considering developments in Pyongyang and Beijing after the summit, some argue that the US-China summit meeting should have focused more on the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.
To sum up, the focus of Trump’s East Asia trip was more on compromise and economic cooperation, than on confrontation and security issues. What Trump agreed with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on forging close cooperative ties in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue had already been agreed to and implemented prior to their summit meetings. Although China promised to ramp up pressure on North Korea, this does not guarantee the full implementation of China’s sanctions against the North. China is also proposing a “dual suspension” proposal, which calls for the suspension of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and of the US-South Korea joint military exercises. Meanwhile, the Indo-Pacific strategy is still only a declarative policy that provides only the contours of Trump’s policy in the region; efforts to define the details of the strategy and promote the understanding of US allies are as yet unclear.
Korean Peninsula after Trump’s East Asia Trip
After Trump’s East Asia trip, circumstances on the Korean Peninsula have not changed much. Pyongyang reacted vehemently to being re-designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, and declared that it is now a full-fledged nuclear power with advanced missile technologies by test-firing a Hwaseong-15 ICBM. Kim Jong-un tightened his reign of terror and eliminated domestic political enemies. Although China is ramping up its pressure on Pyongyang and progress has been made in normalizing China-South Korea relations to a certain extent, there is still a long way to go to bring about significant changes in Chinese behavior. Nevertheless, the adoption of the UNSCR 2397, which applies stronger sanctions on North Korea, provides one more means by which to pressure the North.
The re-designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism was already anticipated prior to Trump’s trip to East Asia. Kim Jong-nam’s assassination and the death of Otto Warmbier worsened American public opinion of North Korea, which has pressed for the need to heighten the pressure on North Korea. However, the effectiveness of the sanctions turned out to be limited since the current sanctions against North Korea are already stronger than those placed on state sponsors of terrorism. Washington might have been concerned about the possibility that the re-designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism may allow the North to justify its provocations, as Pyongyang had not conducted another missile test since September 15. Still, Washington appears to believe that the decision was appropriate, to employ every possible measure to place pressure on North Korea.
For many, it was predictable that Pyongyang would wage additional missile provocations in response to Washington’s move to put North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the outcomes of the US-China summit. It appears that Pyongyang test-fired another missile, claiming to take defensive measures against Trump’s aggressive stance towards North Korea and calculating that Washington would not adopt military measures. And it seems that North Korea’s rapid advancement in missile technology was a key factor that triggered it to test-fire the Hwaseong 15, a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile. Although its re-entry technology is yet to be proven, many countries noted that Pyongyang has made further progress since the launch of the Hwaseong 14 missile on July 28.6
After Pyongyang test-launched the Hwaseong 15 missile, the United Nations Security Council moved to adopt new sanctions against North Korea, primarily aimed at cutting its oil supplies and maritime interdiction. US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Hailey said that Trump brought up the idea of cutting the oil supply to North Korea during his meeting with Xi. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized the need to push for the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from North Korea. So far, however, China and Russia have opposed imposing stiff sanctions against Pyongyang, a stance widely assumed to be based on their broader strategic calculations. Both Beijing and Moscow are reluctant to cause any instability in North Korea even if they have to risk the worst-case scenario where North Korea becomes a full-fledged nuclear power.
Beijing has underscored that it has faithfully implemented the United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. In fact, Beijing has temporarily suspended the operation of an iron bridge linking China and North Korea—its lifeline. China says the suspension is for repair purposes, but the more probable reason behind the decision is for political leverage against Pyongyang. However, given the history of Beijing easing sanctions against Pyongyang over time, China’s commitment to implementing sanctions against North Korea is likely to be ineffective in the years ahead. China might agree to reduce its crude oil supply to North Korea, but this seems unlikely to happen until early next year. It might believe that imposing new sanctions against Pyongyang after supplying the amount of crude oil needed for winter would help the Kim Jong-un regime’s survival.
In the face of escalating international sanctions against the Kim regime, Pyongyang is coming up with measures to deal with such pressure. In early December, Kim Jong-un headed toward Mount Baekdu, a place he likes to visit whenever he wants to make important political decisions. Since then, he has tightened his reign of terror by removing from power Hwang Pyong-so, the former director of the North Korean military’s General Political Bureau. This appears aimed at eliminating potential political enemies and consolidating Kim Jong-un’s grip on power. At the same time, Pyongyang is using the UN and Russia in arguing that North Korea’s nuclear weapons development is justifiable in the face of Washington’s hostile policy toward the North. Despite Pyongyang’s efforts to win support for such claims, the international community has not acknowledged the argument. And as Beijing is escalating pressure on Pyongyang, the Kim regime is trying to send its messages to the international community through Russia, which is also attempting to expand its influence in Northeast Asia. While agreeing with the principle of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the Kremlin is trying to nurture closer ties with North Korea, backing its condemning of the United States.
The stark reality of the Korean Peninsula is also well illustrated by Moon’s visit to China on December 13. Since Moon took office, the Korean government has made significant efforts to improve strained South Korea-China relations. For instance, it reached an agreement with China regarding the THAAD deployment issue on October 31, and hosted the South Korea-China summit within this year. The summit produced some results as Seoul and China agreed on making joint efforts at promoting future-oriented cooperation.7 In dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, the two sides agreed on the principle of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and on escalating pressure on Pyongyang to bring it back to the negotiating table. Still, there are many problems to be tackled, such as the grudge harbored by both sides regarding the THAAD deployment and their failure to release a joint statement after the summit. The summit demonstrated China’s stance coupling denuclearization and blocking American influence in the region.
On the other hand, Tillerson proposed dialogue “without any preconditions” with North Korea at the Atlantic Council meeting on December 12, hinting at a more active US stance on initiating dialogue with North Korea.8 Since the White House underscores that its current North Korean nuclear policy remains unchanged and Tillerson omitted “without any preconditions” in his speech at the UN Security Council on December 15, the real intention of the US government remains unclear. After Pyongyang test-fired the Hwaseong 15, however, many are raising questions on how the proposal of dialogue “without any preconditions” will shape the course of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the coming years.
Lastly, in response to North Korea’s missile test of November 29, UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2397 that extends international economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea.9 The resolution on December 22 includes the limitation of refined oil from 200 million barrels to 50 million barrels, repatriation of North Korean labors within 24 months, banning North Korea’s all remaining categories of major exports such as agricultural products, minerals machinery, and electrical equipment. It also prohibits North Korea’s imports of heavy machinery, industrial equipment, and transportation vehicles. This is the strongest sanctions regime against North Korea thus far, and as a result, international community virtually shut down North Korea’s foreign trade and international income. Although the Security Council had failed to shut down or decrease the supply of crude oil, instead it successfully included the commitment to future oil reductions to North Korea following another nuclear test or an ICBM launch. North Korea calls the UNSCR 2397 as an ‘act of war’ and warns that the United States and other nations that supported the resolution will pay a heavy price.10 Such responses are not uncommon from North Korea, and the uncertainty in the Korea peninsula remains mostly unchanged.
Future Regional Order
The North Korean Nuclear Problem
Since Trump adopted “maximum pressure and engagement” as the centerpiece of his North Korea policy, his administration has been ramping up pressure on Pyongyang. After North Korea’s test-firing of the Hwaseong 15 missile, Washington has shored up efforts to cut the crude oil supply and interdict maritime traffic to and from North Korea. But it is possible that Washington is also taking a moderate stance on the resumption of dialogue with Pyongyang, depending on which messages one takes more seriously.
It is unclear whether the United States will accept North Korea’s consistent demand for international recognition as a nuclear weapon state. Tillerson’s proposed unconditional dialogue with North Korea could imply that the US stance toward North Korea will become more moderate to the point some may surmise that it could lift the current sanctions in exchange for a nuclear freeze. This would mean that Washington might tolerate Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons on condition that the Kim regime agrees to adopt and implement a mid- to long-term roadmap for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That would not mean that Washington would recognize North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapons state. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that Washington would show awareness of the reality that North Korea is a nuclear-armed one. It is uncertain whether such an approach would help to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the mid- and long-term. It would also be difficult to predict the implications that potential nuclear-armed states would draw from the North Korean case.
The above scenario under the proposal of Tillerson, which others in the White House repudiated, contrasts with prevailing expectations that the United States will not agree to a freeze and will place additional pressure on North Korea, potentially by introducing a legally-binding UNSC resolution on cutting the crude oil supply to North Korea. This would make it imperative that China and Russia be persuaded to change their current stance regarding the matter, but the problem for the United States is that currently there is no effective means to accomplish this. After Trump’s East Asia trip, analysts claim that the United States would not pressure China any further by imposing secondary sanctions and triggering the “Super 31” provision. It would also not be easy to adopt military measures, which would inflict tremendous casualties and material damage, but Trump’s stance has left many concerned.
After Trump’s East Asia trip, it remains unpredictable how Washington’s policy toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons program will be formulated in the coming years. In mapping out the US policy direction, Washington is yet to set a clear goal or share it with its allies in the region. In order to overcome multiple challenges emanating from North Korea’s provocations and the different interests of China and Russia, Washington must find alternatives that can be adopted and implemented by Seoul and Tokyo, so that the three countries could join efforts to implement their North Korea policies in a consistent manner. But their national interests are perhaps no longer aligned—at least in Trump’s thinking.
Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
So far, the Trump administration has not fully established the details of its Indo-Pacific strategy, providing only a conceptual framework. From the look of it, the Indo-Pacific strategy overlaps with some of the Obama administration’s rebalance strategy in terms of its promotion of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and emphasis on the rule of law and freedom of navigation. The difference is that unlike Obama’s rebalancing strategy confined to the Asia-Pacific, Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy aims to cover a wider area spanning the Indo-Pacific region. Whereas Obama’s rebalance strategy was pursued with a systematic approach including the expansion of a network of US alliances in the region, provision of military assistance, and establishment of economic partnerships through the TPP. The Trump administration, however, has not devised a systematic approach to implement the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy poses a number of challenges. At the moment, Washington shares an understanding of the concept in a broad sense with Japan and Australia. But India’s stance remains ambiguous. Although India tends to keep its guard high against China, it has expressed interest in leading efforts to forge cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, it is unclear whether India wants to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region. Under these circumstances, Washington may struggle to guide India toward the direction set by the United States, Japan, and Australia.
South Korea also has concerns about participating in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy. On the surface, participating in Washington’s efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region would contribute to serving South Korea’s national interests. Of concern to the South Korean government, however, is the possibility Washington will use this geo-strategy as leverage against Beijing in the region, which can jeopardize South Korea-China relations and trigger non-cooperative attitude from Beijing toward resolving the North Korean nuclear problem. For Seoul to support the strategy, Washington would need to identify how it would serve South Korean national interests.
US-South Korea Alliance
There are various issues that the United States and South Korea face other than the North Korean nuclear problem and issues pertaining to the Indo-Pacific strategy. First, the application of US extended nuclear deterrence on the Korean Peninsula is continually questioned. The US and South Korean governments created the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) to scale up US extended deterrence on the peninsula. Although they are continuing discussions, those efforts have fallen short of the pace needed to deter North Korea’s rapidly escalating nuclear threats. There is no detailed, phased approach to deal with North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile capabilities, and no common understanding as to when or how operational nuclear weapons would be deployed. Both governments agreed to put aside, for now, the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and little effort is dedicated toward establishing an operational plan or developing joint military exercises.
Second, in terms of wartime operational control (OPCON), both the US and South Korean governments have agreed on a “condition-based, rapid transition of wartime operational control,” but transitioning rapidly while meeting conditions is contradictory. Indeed, wartime OPCON transfer is likely to happen when two conditions are met: 1) de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and 2) strengthened military capabilities of the South Korean military. These conditions would take a significant amount of time to be properly met.
Third, defense burden-sharing under the new administrations of the United States and South Korea may trigger conflicts of interest. The beginning of full-scale negotiations on a Special Measures Agreement is scheduled in 2018. Trump has called for Seoul to increase defense burden-sharing and Seoul is expected to focus on an appropriate division of labor and transparent management of defense spending. Depending on the two sides’ objectives and tactics, the negotiations may reveal or deepen differences of understanding on the nature and degree of their defense commitments.
The security reality of East Asia remains largely unchanged despite Trump’s latest visit. Although the region is in greater need of cooperation than ever, divisions between the United States and China remain visible, if not deepening. The North Korean nuclear problem, which cannot be resolved simply by strengthening US alliances with South Korea or Japan, continues to pose threats. While the US-South Korea alliance remains solid, the two sides hold subtly different views about how to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem. North Korea is not ready to return to the negotiation table, and benefits from the divisions among its neighbors. Trump’s East Asia trip did not significantly affect the existing conflict structure in East Asia, with divisions among the regional actors staying unresolved. Indeed, regional issues cannot be tackled singlehandedly by Trump’s visit as the regional security environment is fraught with uncertainties emanating from China’s assertive diplomacy and North Korea’s nuclear development.
For the United States and South Korea, their foreign policies—particularly regarding developments in East Asia—are heavily reliant on alliances. In seeking such an alliance-based strategy, confidence-building measures are necessary. Such measures would include expanding areas of consensus, forging a shared perception of the region’s security environment, and pursuing joint solutions based on a systematic roadmap with a long-term vision. The two countries would benefit from reaffirming their commitment to the alliance whenever possible and managing potential conflicts of interests as they arise. Any conflict and discord between the United States and South Korea could send wrong signals to North Korea, and other actors wary about US influence in the region.
1. “Inside President Trump Trip to Asia,” The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/president-trumps-trip-asia/.
3. Joseph Bosco, “What Can Trump Learn from Kissinger on North Korea?” The Diplomat, November 15, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/11/what-can-trump-learn-from-kissinger-on-north-korea/.
4. “Trump’s speech at S Korea Parliament gets warm welcome,” Kyodo News, November 8, 2017, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2017/11/aa6ecb601219-trump-speech-at-s-korea-parliament-gets-warm-welcome.html.
5. “Inside President Trump Trip to Asia.”
7. “Moon-Xi summit a ‘good signal’ about S. Korea-China ties,” The Korea Herald, December 15, 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171215000552.
8. “Tillerson’s Take on U.S. Foreign Policy: A Year in Review,” Atlantic Council, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/tillerson-s-takes-on-us-foreign-policy-a-year-in-review.
10. “North Korea calls latest UN sanctions ‘an act of war’,” The Korea Herald, December 25, 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20171225000017&ACE_SEARCH=1.