On at least a relatively superficial level, things are looking good in the Korean peninsula. South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un have officially met for talks of potential peace and speculation of denuclearization. At the same time, President Trump is strongly considering reducing or withdrawing altogether U.S. troops in South Korea. Things are progressing at a break-neck speed, and the allure of peace, and particularly of North Korean denuclearization, are so enticing it is easy to hope. However, the situation is likely not as positive as it seems.
Perhaps the two biggest unpredictable risk factors in this exchange are Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump. Beginning with Kim, it almost goes without saying that he is not a trustworthy figure, evidenced by North Korea’s consistent failure to honor agreements made with other nations. This alone should shed doubt on promises of denuclearization. More importantly, North Korea is one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. The North Korean people are abused and cut off from the world completely, meaning that Kim does not need to seek outside approval for anything he may wish to do.
Trump is a demonstrably self-interested leader, so his goals in the Korean situation should be heavily scrutinized. Diplomatically, he has proven to be brash and tone-deaf, leaving him open for manipulation by more shrewd, or at least slightly coached figures, such as Kim. It seems extremely unlikely that Trump’s threats of sanctions and military action have frightened North Korea enough to initiate peace talks. If so, when President Obama said that the U.S. “could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals” and called Kim “erratic and irresponsible,” it would have instilled a similar call to action. Of course Trump’s threats of military were more straightforward and impending, but previous leaders have not held back in admitting willingness to use military force.
What is evident about Trump is his willingness to abandon a role in the Korean conflict if it will represent a brief victory for him personally. The call to evacuate U.S. troops does initially sound like a positive. Ideally, they should have never been involved. However, to withdraw them quickly in a situation so ill-defined reflects a lack of interest from Trump in protecting U.S. allies in the region or preventing future military action from North Korea. It would make sense for Kim to goad South Korea and the U.S. into a false sense of resolution to convince Trump to withdraw meaningful support and protection from the South, making them more vulnerable to pressure or attacks from the North.
If the U.S. did withdraw completely in the near future, South Korea would be in a positive situation of self-governance without concern for appeasing America, which is an ideal situation, particularly as they would be able to control their own diplomatic relationship with the North, without concern for Trump’s unpredictability. I do wish that was attainable. However, I do not believe that North Korea could go to the lengths necessary to prove their commitment to peace, and strongly believe that Kim can not be taken at his word. The calls for Trump’s nobel prize and for the total withdrawal of U.S. troops as soon as possible both feel like traps to serve American ego and not at all in the interest of serving long-term peace in the region.
The promise of a resolution to the ongoing international threat of North Korea is an incredibly enticing idea. However, if history has taught us anything, this process will have to be long and careful and it will be difficult to predict what will happen. I hope that one day there will be peace in the region, and there will be no U.S. troops or involvement at all. However, I do not trust Trump and Kim to be the ones to craft this solution, as nice as it sounds.
Conlan Campbell ’18 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Burnsville, Minn. He majors in English.