President Trump declared at his post-Summit press conference in Singapore on 12 June that US-ROK war games were expensive and provocative and he would abolish them, starting with ‘Ulchi Freedom Guardian’ next August. His decision has drawn some surprising reactions.
US Democrats have linked up with National Security Adviser John Bolton and elements of the mainstream American media, both to criticise the cancellation of the war games and to derail Trump’s denuclearisation agreement. Anything is permissible, it seems, to bring down the president. Japanese commentators have been equally critical. And at least one of the usual suspects among conservative Australian commentators reckons unilateral abolition of the war games runs the risk of destroying the confidence of US allies, including Australia, in the US alliance.
These reactions are as disappointing as they are overblown. It will not be Trump’s quite reasonable decision to stop the war games that will destroy allied confidence in American military reliability, but Trump’s own predilection for urging allies to rely on their own defence resources and stop sponging off the United States. Trump is not giving away the farm, nor, as some of his critics claim, making one-sided ‘front-loaded’ concessions to North Korea. He has not, for example, committed himself to withdrawing American troops from South Korea. Nor, heaven forbid, is he making an offer to match his demand for de-nuclearisation of North Korea by reducing America’s own nuclear arsenal. He has, however, quite accurately described the war games as provocative to Pyongyang. And he could have added that US persistence in holding them since the 1960s has been one of the reasons North Korea has felt threatened enough to embark on its own highly successful nuclear weapons program.
Apart from a few ROK and Japanese generals, the prospect of curtailing these war games has not caused huge upset among US regional allies, let alone more distant ones. Are the ten ASEAN member countries concerned? Or countries in South Asia? Or closer to home, New Zealand or the nations of the South Pacific? It would seem not. Nor has his announcement caused discernible ripples among the fairly phlegmatic South Korean or Japanese public. For the bulk of the people of South Korea , anything to reduce the possibility that an accidental exchange of fire could lead to an artillery barrage landing on the congested buildings of Seoul is to be welcomed. These war games, involving as they do simulated landings north of the 38th parallel, bombing North Korea, including with nuclear weapons, and de-capitation strikes designed to take out the leadership in Pyongyang, are a risky business. But they are more about military cojones than strategic realities. The United States has sufficient neighbouring military bases in Japan, especially on Okinawa, and in Guam, to be able very quickly to come to the aid of their ROK allies if the North attempted another invasion.
And if the United States can’t or won’t? Pundits repeatedly overlook the fact that South Korea is much richer than the North, has been able to acquire far more sophisticated weaponry, and could and should be able to repel a conventional offensive. Without initiative-sapping hand-holding by a paternalistic American military, the ROK military could actually prove to be a surprisingly competent and resourceful defence force.
But assuming calm will prevail for the time being, where to from here? The de-nuclearisation road-map is full of pot holes.
Secretary of State Pompeo has asked Pyongyang to declare its entire nuclear program as soon as possible. This is to include the number and nuclear warheads, their explosive capacity, their location as well as a full inventory of missiles, their location and range. Also to be inventorised so that decisions can be made about their fate, are a uranium enrichment facility at Pakchon, a reactor, re-processing plant and enrichment facility at Yongbyon, a uranium enrichment facility at Pyongsan, and a uranium mine at Sunchon. Meanwhile an underground nuclear test site at Pungye-ri has been blown up in spectacular fashion, and construction of a 200,000KW uranium enrichment facility at Taechon halted. If Pyongyang holds back on any US full-scope disarmament demands, right-wing hardliners surrounding John Bolton can be expected to pressure President Trump to call the whole deal off, as the US has done with other agreements before.
The next step will be for technicians in the United States to draw up a road map for de-nuclearisation including what to do with weapons stockpiles, with ‘ knowledge bases’ (presumably including training schools), and with above ground and underground warehouses and storage facilities.
Providing all this can be successfully realised, a crucial element in negotiations will then be the access Pyongyang will allow for weapons inspectors, presumably from the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as from the United States, to enter all nuclear sites, and the conditions under which they will be permitted to work. If history is any guide, this could be extensive. For six years following negotiation of the 1994 Framework Arrangements under which the United States was to supply two 600 MW Westinghouse light water power reactors in exchange for North Korea dismantling its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongpyon, US technicians were given remarkably open access to most of North Korea’s facilities. Unfortunately, everything came to a grinding halt when Washington dragged its heels in supplying the reactors and Pyongyang because of the obduracy and suspicions of a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of Senator Jesse Helms.
Key words: Singapore summit meeting, North Korea, President Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Advisor Bolton, Chairman Kim Jong-un, disarmament, war games, Ulchi Freedom Guardian.
Richard Broinowski is a former Australian ambassador to South Korea, and immediate past president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in NSW