The recent meeting between Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump was a farce. Both men were clearly complete strangers with no common interests other than to push for their own domestic agendas. Anyone watching their forced actions could see that it was a marriage of convenience.
Both politicians make good use of “political unpredictability.” Abe has abandoned Japan’s long commitment to peace as a goal and is moving quickly away from its social welfare system that was so impressive to us in the 1980s. Trump has not only abandoned the free trade stance which was the core of U.S. policy since the Second World War — without even bothering to ask Congress to pass the laws necessary, he is taking steps domestically, such as personal attacks on judges, that undermine the rule of law.
Of course, North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and advanced missile technology is profoundly destabilizing and dangerous. Yet the odds of the North actually using nuclear weapons against the South or the United States is extremely low. Rather the risk is that continued development of nuclear weapons will set off an arms race in the region which will end up creating tensions not only with Pyongyang, but between all the nations of the region, and that process, unchecked, could end in nuclear war.
I would like to suggest that Seoul engage in its own version of “unpredictability” by doing something that no one ever guessed it would do: tell the truth.
Not only should Seoul state bluntly that the greatest danger of the North’s nuclear program is its risk of triggering an arms race. It should call on the United States to engage in serious negotiations with the North, China and Russia to create an environment in which we can reasonably expect that the North will first stop testing nuclear weapons and then take steps to eliminate those weapons.
There is only one way to achieve that goal: the United States should propose to normalize diplomatic relations with the North. Such an act will reduce tensions immediately and reduce the possibility that the North ever will be tempted to use any of its weapons.
The United States should then follow its commitment as a signee of the Nonproliferation Treaty and take the first clear and verifiable steps toward complete nuclear disarmament. All the nations of the world, and many Americans, would welcome such a commitment of the United States to its own principles. If the United States promised to reduce its nuclear weapons from 6,800 to under 200 over the next 10 years, that decision would change everything in Asia.
Granted the tremendous power struggles going on within the American military at this very moment under the Trump administration, there is growing concern about the control of the nuclear weapons in the United States — a concern that is likely to get worse. There would be no better time to demand that the United States quickly disarm.
Korea should ask that the United States continue its commitment to the security of South Korea, but to focus on immediate and likely security threats, rather than farfetched ones like a nuclear attack from Pyongyang. Such a move will help to bring the United States, Japan and Korea together. The three countries can focus on a coordinated response to growth of cyberattacks and of organized crime, and formulate responses to, and controls on, emerging weapons such as drones and 3D printing.
Even more important, they can work together to respond to the overwhelming threat of climate change, a crisis which will require massive infrastructure investments to respond to rising sea levels and the development of a wide range of technologies for human survival.
All these efforts will require a complete retooling of the militaries and intelligence of nations in the region — something long overdue.
Moreover, there will be plenty of room for cooperation with China on all these issues. The four countries can draw closer together and there will be a real potential for the United States and China to come to a broad agreement, a “grand bargain,” to cooperate long-term in the security realm.
How many people in the Trump administration, or the Republican dominated Congress, would agree with such a set of proposals by Korea? I would venture to say that very few would. Many would be incensed at first.
But Koreans should not worry too much about what the average American politician thinks. After all, American politicians increasingly do not represent Americans, as we can see from the unprecedented distrust of the entire political system in the United States.
Remember that the president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte spoke in an openly confrontational manner to the United States (not suggesting at all the cooperation that I am proposing) and he has not only survived, but he continues to cooperate with the United States.
But more importantly, if Korea made such a proposal for the future of the Korea-U.S .alliance Korea would be representing its actual security interests and also the long-term security interests of the United States itself. No more unnatural posturing to try to please everyone.
Whether American politician indebted to arms manufactures like or hate what Korea says is far less important than that Korea actually come up with its own vision for, and its own strategy for, survival.
There is no future for Korea in a military confrontation with China and there is no future for Korea in a war with the North. The first step is to state this obvious truth and articulate a security position that reflects it. I am certain, based on what I have heard informally, that there will be many in both the United States and Japan who will sympathize with such a vision if someone has the bravery to utter it.