By Dennis Meaney
On Oct.10, World Policy Institute hosted, “Arms and Allies: Security Cooperation in East Asia,” featuring panelists who have closely studied alliances and joint operations in the region. In their discussion of security issues, the speakers—Ankit Panda, senior editor at The Diplomat; Emilia Puma, Foreign Policy Advisor to the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff; and Dr. Hyun-Wook Kim, Professor of American Studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy—noted in particular the recent nuclear saber-rattling on the Korean peninsula.
The Race to an ICBM
Following opening remarks from Gheewhan Kim, Consul General for the Republic of Korea in New York, Panda highlighted what he called “disturbing events” as North Korea’s missile program developed over the last year. Describing the recent surge of missile launches after a lull in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Panda said that “just in the span of about eight months North Korea has shown off six new systems that are serious causes for concern.” This swell of activity culminated in a July 4 test of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). “Not a particularity happy day,” Panda remarked.
He continued, “We have known for a while that North Korea had intercontinental range aspirations, but this was the first-ever flight test … the significance was immediately apparent.” Other tests highlighted Pyongyang’s ability to strike both Seoul and Tokyo, but the July launch was the first to prove that North Korea may have the ability to strike the U.S. homeland. This, according to Panda, has “raised the old Cold War specter of decoupling.” The “decoupling” challenge during the Cold War required U.S. diplomats to credibly assure governments in London, Paris, and Bonn that Washington would be willing to risk Soviet retaliation on its mainland. “Now,” Panda claimed, “North Korea has introduced this problem to Northeast Asia and made allied commitments and reassurances a much more difficult task.”
The introduction of the decoupling problem to Northeast Asia does have significant implications for the region. One might be its nuclearization. After all, the question was never entirely resolved during the Cold War. President Charles De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO in 1966 so that the country could pursue a nuclear deterrent of its own, finding U.S. assurances that it would sacrifice “New York for Paris” insufficient. Can the current administration in Washington allay fears that it would leave Seoul and Tokyo high and dry in a crisis?
Emilia Puma, Air Force Foreign Policy Advisor, pushed back on the idea that U.S. commitments in the region were wavering. Puma commented that “North Korea’s weapons tests pose a threat to every country within strike range of their missiles, but they also destabilize a region that is crucial to international trade and security alliances,” making clear that regional stability is a key interest of U.S. To stress the point further, Puma emphasized U.S. commitment to “ensuring freedom of maneuver in air and water spaces.” She was referring specifically to Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, but her statement can also be interpreted as a comment on the iron-clad nature of American security guarantees in the region writ large.
Kim agreed that American security commitments were not in question, hailing a recent summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as a success. But Kim also highlighted South Korea’s efforts to take the initiative in regard to its own security, such as building a missile defense system to complement the jointly operated THAAD system and developing its own non-nuclear second-strike capability: Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR).
Kim did, however, express concern that the Trump administration was sending mixed messages, remarking that he had seen some “very strange things” in the media. Given Trump’s statements as a presidential candidate that U.S. security commitments could be withdrawn if countries like South Korea and Japan did not “pay up,” it’s clear how muddled and contradictory messaging can exacerbate the decoupling problem.
What About Sunshine?
With the election of the progressive Moon Jae-in, Seoul was widely expected to re-implement the so-called “Sunshine Policy.” The policy, followed most recently by President Roh Moo-hyun during his 2003-2008 term, calls for dialogue and engagement with North Korea. But Kim noted gaps—which some may consider contradictions—between the U.S. and South Korean governments’ respective policies toward North Korea. He said, “The Trump government’s policy is maximum-pressure engagement, and the Moon Jae-in government’s North Korea policy is sanctions and dialogue, which are harmonized.” Although Kim acknowledged there had been some concerns about the U.S. and South Korea being on the same page, he believes they are “together right now.”
With tensions rising in the region, a pressing question is how to mitigate the potential for conflict. The panelists were more upbeat about the situation on the Korean peninsula moving forward than some of their initial comments suggested.
Panda ended his remarks on “an uplifting note,” claiming that the future of deterrence in Northeast Asia was not as grim as the heated rhetoric saturating the media often implies. “The United States knows how to deter,” he assured the audience. “It successfully deterred the Soviet Union, it successfully deterred Mao Zedong’s China.” The comparison to China is especially relevant given that, at the time, many Western commentators described Mao in ways similar to how they now portray Kim Jong-un.
Puma stressed that open dialogue with both friends and foes, particularly during a crisis, limits the possibility of miscommunication and escalation. She raised a key point: that both military and civilian leadership wished to work “with non-partners and non-allies in order to prevent misunderstanding and reduce the risk of unintended incidents.”
To end the session, Kim sounded an optimistic note on easing tensions. He explained that there are avenues for mediation “right here in New York,” referring to the United Nations, which he claimed could play a significant role in defusing the crisis. The international legitimacy and credible neutrality of the U.N. may make it the best organization able to facilitate discussion between North Korean and U.S. diplomats as tensions escalate. Given the Moon Jae-in government’s seeming openness to diplomatic channels with Pyongyang, there is hope for keeping the prospect of future dialogue alive.
Dennis Meaney is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photos by Amanda Ghanooni]