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Striking a Balance on Korea

As the US continues to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Washington must balance its priorities between appeals to Pyongyang and maintaining its valuable relationship with Seoul.

Image courtesy of Jack Upland, © 2012.

The adversarial relationship between Washington and Pyongyang has its beginnings in the Cold War, as does the political situation on the Korean peninsula. The peninsula was divided after the defeat of Imperial Japan in World War II, with the north under the influence of the USSR, and the south under the influence of the USA. The following 1950-1953 Korean War was incredibly destructive for the peninsula, and as far as Seoul and Pyongyang are concerned, is still not over. A peace treaty was never signed between the two Korean governments – only an armistice – and the border between the two is one of the most heavily militarized on the planet.

North Korea relies heavily on its perceived military might to maintain its international image, personified in its philosophy of juche, which roughly translates as “self-reliance.” However, while North Korea’s military may be large, its equipment is Soviet-vintage or home-grown deviations of Soviet designs. The weakness of relying on Soviet equipment was laid bare in the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War, in which Western forces steamrolled the Iraqi military twice. Additionally, the 2011 Libyan revolt and the fall of Muammar Gaddafi only reinforced the perception of Western military dominance, and its willingness to use it to topple “unsavory” dictators. This includes even dictators who gave up their nuclear weapons program in exchange to be left alone. As such, developing a nuclear deterrent became the obvious choice for a nervous North Korea. After an attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to its nuclear program with the United States, Pyongyang finally withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and has since pressed forward with developing a nuclear deterrent.

Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula must be the foremost task of any East Asia policy put forward by Washington. Aside from regional security concerns, North Korea’s decision to violate, then leave the NPT sets a dangerous precedent if left unchecked. The current administration has tried, but its efforts have stalled and an increasing belligerence from the government in Pyongyang makes achieving a breakthrough all the more difficult. A simple “troops for nukes” agreement, in which the United States withdraws its forces from South Korea in exchange for North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, would likely not be enough, and would only alienate South Korea.

In bringing Pyongyang to the denuclearization table, it will be necessary for Washington to make some concessions or assurances. It will be necessary to balance the need to bring Pyongyang to the table with the need to maintain the defense relationship with Seoul. South Korea has been one of Washington’s most important allies in East Asia. As with the North, this relationship was first forged during the Korean War and strengthened as North Korea continued its pattern of provocation and as the South Korean grew into a valuable trading partner.

However, Seoul and Washington recently have not exactly been seeing eye to eye. The current administration in Seoul has engaged in direct talks with Pyongyang, seemingly cutting out the US and potentially getting ahead of Washington on peace talks with the North. Recently, Washington approached Seoul with a request to increase its financial contribution to the burden sharing arrangement for stationing American troops in South Korea. Talks over the new costs ended abruptly in the middle of November with no conclusion reached.

South Korea has, in the past, pursued nuclear weapons, but gave up its program under pressure from the United States. There are some in South Korea that argue that if the United States withdraws its extended deterrence guarantees or troops, the question of South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons becomes one of “when,” not “if.” Should both Koreas become nuclear powers, the situation in East Asia would become several orders of magnitude more volatile than even the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan.

So, how does Washington bring Pyongyang to the table without alienating Seoul? The key will be ensuring that Seoul and Washington are in lockstep on every decision. Both governments have a vested interest in removing North Korea’s nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. There will need to be close coordination on what concessions to Pyongyang both are willing to tolerate. If both Seoul and Washington remain firmly on the same page, then it will be difficult for Pyongyang to exploit differences in opinion.

As stated, though, concessions to North Korea will be necessary. While a full withdrawal of ground forces would be unwise, a reduction in numbers or a moratorium on joint exercises between American and South Korean forces may be necessary preconditions. Considerations for a peace treaty between North and South should be made, as this would go a long way towards placating some of Pyongyang’s fears and would be one of the greatest deals of a presidency. As long as neither Seoul nor Washington is sold out in the process, such a treaty can lay the foundation for a denuclearized Korea.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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