By William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, and Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security
Fears of war on the Korean Peninsula have escalated ahead of US President Donald Trump’s 12-day visit to the Asia-Pacific later this week. On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the US was deciding whether its three aircraft carriers currently deployed in the Asia-Pacific would carry out an exercise to coincide with Trump’s trip. A Japanese government source said the country was considering sending one or two ships to join the potential exercise. Meanwhile, the cruise missile armed submarine USS Michigan is loitering off the Korean Peninsula, and 12 F-35As stealth fighters have arrived in Okinawa for a six-month deployment.
North Korea has conducted missile tests almost monthly for close to a year, but its last test came in the middle of September. Kim Jong-un may have refrained from such activity during the recent Chinese Communist Party’s leadership conclave as a token gesture to his only ally, but he has not previously shied away from carrying out tests before major summits. In April, North Korea conducted a missile test ahead of a summit between Trump and China’s Xi Jinping. In July, North Korea taunted the United States by launching an intercontinental ballistic missile as a Fourth of July ‘gift’ to the Trump administration. And on 2 September North Korea conducted its sixth and highest-yield nuclear test to date, believed to be the detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
Furious exchanges between Trump and Kim has exacerbated regional fears about an impending conflict across the 38th Parallel. The fact that Kim called Trump a ‘mentally deranged US dotard’ after Trump threatened to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea has not helped matters. Perhaps of more concern is that ad hominem remarks directed by North Korea against the US leadership are institutionalised in the DPRK’s state media. Trump’s reciprocal tirades, on the other hand, are more of a wild card.
Japan, the first Asia-Pacific country that Trump will visit, has every reason to harden its military posture in light of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear tests. During the most recent flight of a North Korean missile over Japan’s Hokkaido island, municipal alarm systems were triggered over fears of missile debris falling over populated areas. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who won a stunning super-majority in recent elections, has vowed to install Aegis Ashore missile-defence systems on the Japanese homeland to defend against North Korean missiles. There have been revived debates about the need for pre-emptive strikes on North Korean bases, and even the stationing of nuclear-armed American submarines in Japan.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has adopted a posture of both dialogue and deterrence vis-à-vis North Korea, has turned more hardline. Recently, his defence minister Song Young-moo said that South Korea would increase its high-tech capabilities, buy new missiles and expand military cooperation with the US. ‘The more missiles the better,’ Song declared.
What would not help
Trumpian rhetoric to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea is not helpful at a time when, alarmingly, the likelihood of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula has moved from remotely possible to almost palpable. The illusion of momentary loss of control had its place in Cold War-era nuclear strategy – it was, after all, beneficial for deterrence stability. Trump’s channelling of Richard Nixon’s ‘madman theory’ – the latter had sent US nuclear bombers towards the Soviet Union in 1969 to show Moscow and Hanoi that he would do anything to end the war in Vietnam – is useful, but only to a certain extent.
The madman theory did not work for Nixon. And unlike Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, the North Korea of today has nukes. The leader Trump mockingly labels ‘rocket man’ and his advisers may be far more rational than is conventionally accepted. Their goals might be controversial and even repugnant, but the regime’s steady progression towards a nuclear-capable ICBM capability has not triggered a debilitating attack on the country (yet). North Korea’s nuclear and missile buildup is aimed at testing the very heart of the US’s extended guarantee – whether Washington would risk, say, Los Angeles, to defend Seoul or Tokyo.
It would also be useful if Trump, in his meeting with Xi, avoids intensifying regional concerns of growing Sino-American bonhomie – a closeness that would leave South Korea out in the cold and run the risk of Pyongyang, Beijing and Washington discussing Korean peninsular security over the head of Seoul. Cui Tiankai, China’s envoy to the US, was recently asked whether his country supported direct US–DPRK talks. In reply, he said that China was open to any kind of talks, so long as they were ‘conducive’ to a peaceful solution. Privately, South Koreans rankle at being left out of any talks about their own security. Their fears were only heightened when Henry Kissinger proposed that the US agree with China to withdraw most of its troops from the Peninsula after a North Korean collapse, to allay Chinese fears about US forces at its border.
What will help
Trump should stick to the approach recently outlined by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. After talks with Song last week, Mr Mattis said that the US and South Korea had many different and realistic military options for countering the North Korean threat – but these options were designed to keep the peace. This chimes with the words of Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command. Speaking at the 30th IISS Fullerton Lecture in October, Admiral Harris said that every country that considers itself a responsible contributor to global security must work to bring Kim ‘to his senses, and not his knees’. Alliance preparations to bolster deterrence are working in parallel with the pursuit of diplomatic options, Mr Mattis added.
It would also help if Trump were to stress that the new sanctions regime being slapped on North Korea is a means of getting Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. While the American view is that North Korea is on the cusp of a nuclear-armed ICBM capable of hitting the US, a South Korean assessment is that such a capability is still about a year away. At any rate, sanctions should be given some time to kick in, thus helping to convince Pyongyang not to cross the nuclear-armed ICBM threshold.
It would be helpful if Trump, like Mattis, spoke at length about the sustainability of American power in the Asia-Pacific, in line with alliances and partnerships across the region. During his presentation at the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Mattis spoke in depth about Washington upholding the rules-based order, based on the principles of freedom of navigation and respect for international law. Trump should talk about what his vision of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ entails. This narrative does not sound as compelling as the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to the Asia-Pacific, given Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and China’s relative success at pitching its Belt and Road Initiative. A more detailed explanation of the ‘Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative’ first mentioned by Mattis would also be useful.
There is no guarantee that Trump will not go off script, particularly if North Korea conducts another nuclear or missile test during his trip. And even if it does, it is critically important for Asia-Pacific security that Trump does not fly off the handle.