By Prabasi Nepali
The Korean Pivot: Seoul’s Strategic Choices and Rising Rivalries in Northeast Asia
The above is the title of a discussion paper published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Washington, D.C. The writers are of the opinion that as U.S.-China relations intensify and as the North Korean strategic threat grows, the importance of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) is becoming clearer day by day. Yet, under new US President Trump, the US-ROK alliance is now facing a period of uncertainty. In no uncertain terms, Trump has stated that ROK (as also Japan and NATO countries) should shoulder a greater burden for its own defense. South Korea itself is in great domestic turmoil after the national assembly suspended President Park Geun-hye from office after she was implicated as an accomplice in the criminal investigation for financial irregularities of a close friend and confidante, Choi Soon-sil.
Given this uncertain strategic environment, the CFR discussion paper argues that it is critical for US policy makers to understand “South Korea’s geopolitical position in the context of the reemergence of great power rivalries in Northeast Asia and the acute constraints on South Korea’s foreign policy and strategic options.”From the United States perspective, to effectively manage rising regional tensions, South Korea’s ability to skillfully manage the region’s rivalries and coordinate with the United States and Japan will beof the utmost importance.
Simultaneously, the United States, South Korea and Japan will need an even closer trilateral alliance and improved multilateral cooperation to tackle the North Korean conventional and nuclear (and now also chemical/biological) threat and to prepare for any scenario of instability in North Korea. This has become especially acute after the diabolical murder of the half-brother of the North’s eccentric and unstable supreme leader. South Korea finds itself in the unenviable position of having to maintain a strong alliance with the United States, while at the same time not allowing relations with its next door neighbour China from deteriorating. It finds itself in a delicate balancing act between two regional and world powers. The need of the hour is for cautious but firm leadership and diplomacy on all sides to help prevent the catastrophes that engulfed Europe and Asia in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Trump’s wobbly administration is not at all reassuring whether in East Asia, or in other parts of the world.
There is even no unity as to how to confront the nuclear and chemical/biological threat emanating from North Korea. It had claimed it successfully test launched a medium-to-long-range ballistic missile timed to coincide with Trump’s summit with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe. This forced the two leaders to agree on an ad hoc (but lukewarm) response after their round of golf at Trump’s estate in Florida. Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, said the president and Abe had sent the world a message of strength and solidarity: “We stand with Japan and we stand with our allies in the region to address the North Korean menace.The US, Japan and South Korea requested urgent diplomatic talks at the UN to discuss the launch.
North Korea’s state-run KCNA newsagency said the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had personally overseen the launch of a Pukguksong-2 missile, which flew for about 500 km before splashing down in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan (Sea of Japan/East Sea). KCNA described the missile as a strategic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Kim had “expressed great satisfaction over the possession of another powerful nuclear attack means, which adds to the tremendous might of the country.” KCNA added sardonic that the missile had been launched at a steep trajectory out of consideration for the safety of neighboring countries [!] North Korea was in sight of its goal of developing a nuclear weapon capable of striking the US mainland.
The Chinese Communist party newspaper said US demands for Beijing to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes were pointless, unless the US examined its own role in fermenting current tensions. The Global Times (close to the Chinese establishment) said North Korea had been angered by the “very real” military threat from the US and its allies, and the imposition of robust UN sanctions. By insisting that China take action, the US and other countries were ignoring the “root cause” of Pyongyang’s provocative behavior. The Russian foreign ministry described the launch as “another defiant disregard” for UN Security Council resolutions, and a cause for “regret and concern”.
In the latest development, China has been furious over a joint plan by the United States and South Korea to set up the “Terminal High Altitude Area Defence” (THAAD) missile system in South Korea. Washington and Seoul say it will defend against nuclear-armed North Korean missiles. But Beijing insists its far-reaching radar is targeted at China and compromises its own strategic defense. Last week, the South Korean conglomerate “Lotte Group” approved a land-swap deal that moved the THAAD system closer to deployment. At the same time, Chinese state media and grassroots political groups swung into action and led angry calls to boycott popular Korean products. China also ordered tour operators in Beijing to stop selling trips to South Korea. This highlights the lower intensity tools that China can deploy to hit back at the corporate interests of trade partners it disagrees with. This is also a dire warning to Trump not to wreck Sino-American trade.
To make matters worse, this week Monday, North Korea fired four banned ballistic missiles that flew about 1,000 km on average, with three of them landing in sovereign waters that Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone. The test launches appeared to be a reaction to huge US-South Korea annual military exercises that those countries consider routine, but Pyongyang insists are a preparation for an invasion. Both the two great powers, the US and China are confounded as to how to advance an effective deterrent.
The Trump-Russia Nexus
U.S. President Donald Trump is facing a new barrage of questions about his connections to Russia, but he and his administration is still in denial. Washington has become such a hot bed of rumors, conjectures, denials and new revelations, that it has become very difficult, if not impossible for even an ‘insider’ to separate fact from fiction. During the election campaign, Trump had promised to drain the ‘Washington swamp’ if elected, now the president himself is pouring ‘dirty water’ into it on a daily basis.
Trump has had to concede that his administration may have to postpone his plan to engage with Moscow on the Islamic State group and other national security matters. Trump and (part of) his aides have attributed the change in thinking to Moscow’s recent provocations. However, the reconsideration of a major position of the president’s foreign policy highlights the growing political risks in forging closer relations with Russia, as long as the FBI (and other intelligence agencies) investigates his campaign assistants’ connections to Moscow and Congressional committees intensify their investigation of Russia’s interference (which is now a given) in the 2016 presidential election. This major controversy has already led to forced resignation of Trump’s national security adviser (NSA), Lt.Gen.(retd.) Michael Flynn, who misled officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Now, in a further escalation, Democrats have also called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign after he blatantly lied to the Senate Judicial Committee about his own meetings with the envoy.
Trump’s so-called new skepticism about cooperating with Moscow may also reflect on the rising influence of a new batch of no-nonsense associates who have unabashedly — contrary to Trump —taken a robust public stance on Russia. These include Defense Secretary Gen.(retd.) Jim Mattis and new national security adviser, and still serving army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. During his first meeting with National Security Council staff, McMaster described Russia as a country that wants to completely disrupt the current world order. US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley strongly censured Russia last month over its actions in Ukraine, saying U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 would remain in place until the peninsula is restored to Ukraine. Is this the end of the Trump-Putin ‘bromance’?
Trump has been vexed by questions about his possible ties to Russia for months. Inexplicably, he’s taken an unusually friendly posture toward Russia, praising Vladimir Putin’s leadership and often appearing to parrot Kremlin’s positions on Ukraine and other issues.He has also often repeated that it would be better for the U.S. and Russia to have a stronger relationship, particularly in fighting terrorism. In spite of his enigmatic stance, Trump claims he has no nefarious connections or financial ties to Russia. He completely denies that his campaign advisers had any contacts with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, in spite of NSA Flynn’s dismissal and that lately Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to excuse himself (i.e. have nothing to do personally) from any Justice Department investigations related to Russia and the election campaign — it is reported that the latter has made Trump furious.
The basic point is that meetings between on-going (transition) administration officials and Russian diplomats are quite normal. The crux of the matter is that these were regularly denied of having taken place, even after Russian officials, including the deputy foreign minister, had affirmed the meetings. Conclusion: the Trump administration has some very dirty secrets!
Trump Faces Major Challenges
By Prabasi Nepali