“The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed,” President Trump tweeted Sunday of his administration’s decision to end large-scale war games with South Korean forces. “Also,” Trump added, “reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!” In a follow-up tweet Monday, he redoubled the argument from thrift, insisting the move was not discussed during his recent second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and that anyone saying otherwise is “FAKE NEWS.”
The savings here are not inconsequential—the Pentagon estimates the two annual exercises in question cost about $14 million each—but are easily overshadowed by the more than $800 million the Defense Department spends annually to station U.S. troops in South Korea, to say nothing of the Pentagon’s $700 billion annual budget. But for all Trump downplayed it, the strategic rationale here is more important than the money: It is good to reduce tensions with North Korea, and ending these drills is a positive step toward that end.
That’s why this move comes with South Korean support—indeed, at Seoul’s request. It should be one piece of a broader strategy of Korean-led diplomacy which prioritizes concrete shifts toward peace and normalcy over creation of a tidy but unrealistic denuclearization deal.
This requires a sharp shift away from the rut in which U.S.-North Korean relations have floundered across multiple decades and presidencies. It rejects conceptualizing the United States as the “indispensable nation,” to borrow the Clinton administration’s infamous phrase, and hands the diplomatic reins to our South Korean partners. While Trump’s latest meeting with Kim seems to have done little to move negotiations along, ongoing conversations between Seoul and Pyongyang have racked up a steady stream of small but significant wins over the last year.
Guiding talks with North Korea is a task to which South Korea is uniquely suited in terms of cultural and physical proximity alike. The obscene destruction South Korea would suffer should war break out—far more serious than anything Kim could hope to inflict on the United States—necessitates an invaluable prudence and patience in Seoul’s negotiating which Washington seems incapable of reproducing.
Crucially, such a shift in our Korea strategy would equally recognize the reality that Pyongyang is unlikely to surrender its nuclear arsenal any time soon (see, for example, this week’s report that a dismantled rocket launch site is being reconstructed). Kim’s goal is to ward off any external regime change efforts, and he sees his nukes as integral to that plan. Around three in four Americans have figured this out, even if the Washington foreign policy establishment has not. In Kim’s perspective, nuclear weapons may be all that stand between him and the loss of life and power suffered by voluntarily denuclearized dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
The United States insisting Kim surrender his nukes before any concessions are granted will not assuage that fear and make denuclearization feasible. By contrast, productive diplomatic engagement facilitating a gradual trend toward normalized relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula could dramatically change North Korea’s internal and external politics. Eventually, it might change Kim’s obsession with nuclear armament, too, and even before then could incentivize freezes on activity like the rocket site rebuild.
In the near term, however, peace and normalcy must be the watchword. All the summits in the world won’t do a bit of good if they’re stuck in a quixotic quest for short-order denuclearization. Contrary to what hyperventilating fearmongers in Washington might suggest, this is a sure course for American security, which is already guaranteed by conventional deterrence and can only be enhanced by North Korean progression toward peace.
Shutting down these military exercises with South Korea may well save us some money, but the real merit—as already demonstrated by a previous suspension of drills—is in what this goodwill measure will do to steer us away from unnecessary and indefinitely preventable war.