As concern over North Korea has reached a crescendo in the early days of the Trump administration, much attention has been paid to China’s potential role in pressing North Korea to put an end to its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
During his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and thereafter, the president basically put the onus on China to control its reckless neighbor. We will not allow North Korea to develop a capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States, Trump proclaimed. If China won’t fix the problem, the U.S. will, he said.
Stating that all options are on the table, Trump underscored the seriousness of his intent by asserting (somewhat prematurely it seems) that an aircraft carrier task force was steaming is way toward the Korean Peninsula.
With so much attention to China, there has been far less discussion of the equally important role that our allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, must play if we are to solve the North Korean problem. Our bases in South Korea and Japan are central to deterrence against reckless North Korean behavior.
The North Koreans must know that any use of its nuclear weapons capability against the U.S. or its alliance will be met by overwhelming force. At the same time, our allies must be part of any strategy aimed at a peaceful resolution of the problem. Along with China, they are key to effective implementation of sanctions. They will also be crucial to any incentives that will necessarily be involved in the long-term settlement of the issues on the Peninsula.
Both Koreas share the ultimate goal of unification. While we must guard against a direct threat to the U.S., we must recognize that there no way for the U.S. to resolve our deep concerns about North Korea without the full and active cooperation of South Korea. It is the Korean Peninsula and the people of South Korea will be on the front line of any attack by the North.
The Trump administration has been wise to ground its approach to North Korea on reassurances to our allies. The president’s first official meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe took place against the backdrop of a North Korean missile test, which they jointly denounced. Coordination with South Korea has been somewhat hampered by a governmental crisis. President Park Geun Hye was removed from office through impeachment early this year, and a new president will be elected May 9.
President Trump has nonetheless had several phone conversations with acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo Ahn, and both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made Korea their first stops in Asia. Vice President Mike PenceMike (Michael) Richard PenceWhy Trump needs Seoul and Tokyo for success with North KoreaPence reaffirms ties in IndonesiaTrump to visit Philippines, VietnamMORE just completed visits to Korea and Japan aimed at bolstering alliance solidarity in facing the North Korea challenge.
The ability of the U.S. and South Korea governments to maintain a high level of consultations during the impeachment crisis is a testament to the strength of Korean democratic institutions and to U.S. respect for the Republic of Korea as an ally. The past decade has been something of a golden age in U.S.-Korea relations.
Both President Bush and President Obama have gotten along extremely well with successive conservative presidents in South Korea. The two nations have stood together on a tough posture toward North Korea. With both governments following a policy dubbed “strategic patience,” however, the North Korea problem has only grown worse in this period, with the North moving inexorably toward deliverable nuclear weapon.
With two center-left candidates now running neck and neck in the presidential election, South Korea is almost certain to have a different kind of government after May 9. Both leading candidates support a strong alliance with the U.S., but both are calling for a return to dialogue with the North. This could pose coordination problems with the U.S., but it could also offer new opportunities.
The Trump administration has rightly declared the time for patience is over, but no one wants war. The U.S. clearly wants strong pressure on the North to denuclearize, but as Vice President Pence said in Seoul and Tokyo, we also want a peaceful solution. That will eventually require a return to the negotiating table.
Stronger Chinese pressure on the North will be a necessary prerequisite for successful negotiations, but chances for success will be greatest if Seoul is also playing a leading part with close coordination with the United States.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.