Among the more fanciful of President Trump’s absurd claims is that his interaction with Kim Jong-un kept us out of war.
The implication is that Joe Biden, if he defeats Trump for the presidency in November, might reverse course and plunge the Korean peninsula into a second Korean War — possibly worse than the first Korean War in which 4 million people, the majority civilians, were killed.
Having been in Seoul in 2017 when Trump was calling Kim “rocket man” and threatening to wipe North Korea off the map, I can say with certainty that Trump’s meetings with Kim in 2018 and 2019 did not save us from Korean War II. For all the big talk, no one was about to go to war again in Korea.
I heard Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state under President Barack Obama before her ill-fated presidential campaign against Trump in 2016, talk firmly and clearly during visits to Seoul about the need to defend South Korea. She did not, however, threaten war. She simply reassured South Korea, as a valued ally, of the tightness of the bond between the United States and Korea.
Trump reversed course with North Korea around the time of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics when Kim sent sister Yo Jong to Seoul with an invitation for an inter-Korean summit. Kim and President Moon Jae-in met two months later on the North-South line in Panmunjom, and Kim and Trump met in Singapore in June for the first U.S.-North Korea summit.
In retrospect, however, the statement that Trump and Kim signed in Singapore promising a “nuclear free” Korean peninsula was meaningless. Trump made a huge concession to Kim, agreeing to halt large-scale joint exercises with South Korean troops. Kim, of course, has not done a thing about giving up his nukes and missiles.
Now the question is whether Biden would be more effective than Trump in persuading Kim to agree seriously to denuclearization or face endless threats from the United States, mainly in the form of sanctions.
In fact, if Kim survives the threat of the coronavirus, which may account for his prolonged disappearances from public view this year, he would probably not give in to such pressure.
Biden, however, could be expected to repair some of the damage that Trump has inflicted on U.S.-Korean relations. He could begin by dropping entirely Trump’s absurd demand that the South agree to pay as much as $5 billion for keeping 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea, on perpetual guard against the North.
U.S. negotiators are not holding out for anywhere near the $5 billion figure, but the United States and South Korea remain far apart on a deal. The United States wants South Korea to increase its burden by $200 million to $300 million from the current level of about $900 million a year.
Actually, Biden, if elected would have to repair damaged relations between the United States and other countries around the world. Trump has offended friends and allies, spreading alarm by his desire to undermine if not betray U.S. defense commitments.
U.S. allies in Europe are also concerned by his demands for other countries to increase their contributions for having U.S. troops poised to defend them. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was shocked by Trump’s decision to pull one-third of America’s 36,000 troops from Germany.
Trump holds a similar threat over South Korea. If the South refuses to come to terms, he may simply decide to withdraw a few thousand U.S. troops.
Considering Moon’s eagerness to get along with Kim, perhaps a reduction in U.S. military strength in Korea would not be too upsetting, but many members of the ruling liberal party as well as Korean conservatives would not be happy to see the U.S. scaling down its commitment to the South.
Then there is the trade dispute with the United States. South Korea’s trade surplus with the United States is more than $20 billion a year.
hat’s one reason Trump demands South Korea pay far more for U.S. troops and bases if Kim shows signs of going beyond bluff and bluster. Biden would also not be happy about that huge surplus but he would not compromise U.S. defense of South Korea in a fit of rage.
There is a certain irony in comparing the likely policies of Trump and Biden on Korea. Trump is a conservative and Biden a moderate liberal. Some Koreans no doubt think a conservative American president would align with conservatives in the South on North Korea.
Trump is extremely unpredictable whereas liberal American presidents, pillars of the Democratic Party, have a long record of defending the South going back to President Harry Truman’s swift decision in 1950 to turn back invasion by North Korean troops on orders from Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.