South Korea has a good reason to worry about what else is in the unwritten Trump–Kim agreement

Boaz  Guttman / Flickr Donald Trump amp Kim Jong Un...
Boaz Guttman / Flickr

The brief agreement signed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is mostly confined to praising the meeting between the two men. But lodged between the repetitions of “historic” and the declarations that this brief get together was actually “an epochal event of great significance,” one of the items numbered as a goal is getting some attention.

2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

It’s not the only place, both in the document and in subsequent press conferences, where Trump has dealt with Korea has a whole, but while denucularization is a term often associated with the entire peninsula, the “peace regime” that Trump is supported comes with particular worry south of the DMZ. South Koreans, who have long sought reunification along the lines of the former East and West Germanys, are starting to developed an uneasy feeling that Trump means to bring them all together … but doesn’t have much concern about whether a free democracy controls all those nice beaches.

As The Guardian reports, for South Koreans, this sort of highly trumpeted diplomatic gesture is nothing new. Kim’s father welcomed two South Korean presidents, and accepted a good deal of aid and assistance, none of which did anything to relax the despot’s hold on the north. But the concession given by Trump in suspending joint military preparedness exercises goes way beyond a few shipments of food. It’s concerning. So is the way Trump has adopted North Korean terms in calling the exercises “war games” and “very provocative.” So is Trump’s declared intention that he still intends to “bring home” American troops.

Coming on top of the way Trump spurned US allies at the G-7 while reaching out to Russia, and the way that Trump has repeatedly demeaned the role of NATO allies, all of this is heightening fears that Trump won’t just deal with Kim to find a place for a Trump Hotel, he’ll flip his allegiance to the man he calls “very talented” and who he reportedly trusts to follow through on agreements not covered by formal documents.

The concern in South Korea is that its neighbour’s militarism stems not from self-defence but from ambitions to reunify the peninsula on its terms.

Trump has already made an explicit show of his willingness to abandon a US ally to its enemies, even when that ally has a large US military base.

Trump not only delivered a $100 billion military deal for Saudi Arabia, but stepped back to allow the Saudis and UAE to blockade their tiny neighbor. The result has been a $20 billion a month drain on Qatar—and an increase in world oil and gas prices—as well as a handy $1.8 billion for Jared Kushner. Pulling US troops out of South Korea looks as if it could be a fast track to allowing the North to negotiate with their neighbors literally at gun point, over the yawning back of artillery that can easily reach Seoul.

With Qatar, Trump and Kushner were able to work with the Saudis to bludgeon a US ally into a highly profitable submission. It’s perhaps the greatest single global shakedown ever arranged. It demonstrated that Trump did not have to use the force of the US military to back up his statements; he could use the inaction of that military just as profitably. Breaking treaties, abusing allies, playing footsie with one ally while they’re in open conflict with another … it’s what has already brought declarations that “The US is no longer a country we can trust” from America’s closest allies.

With Korea, Trump is upping the stakes. He hasn’t quite handed South Korea a bill for continued US cooperation … but he certainly seems very close to doing so.

Both the Pentagon and South Korea’s military appeared to have [been] blindsided by Trump’s statement.

U.S. Forces Korea said it had “received no updated guidance,” and Seoul said it would need to clarify the “intention behind his comments.”

Analysts were baffled because giving Kim the concession on preparedness exercises seemed not just a huge win for Kim, but unnecessary for a conference that netted nothing in return. But that depends on what Trump wants to do. Just meeting might have been enough to make people on both sides of the DMZ happy. But Trump may have also wanted to make sure that at least one side—the side with the money—was also afraid.

“I don’t quite understand why Trump felt the need to stop the war games,” a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “They are something that shows U.S. resolve in the region, not only to North Korea but also more importantly to China. And it seems like there’s this whole idea of Trump as this great negotiator and yet he gave up one of the most important cards we have in the region, seemingly for free.”

South Koreans were surprised, but thrilled, by the idea that Trump was willing to talk to Kim. But the results of that talk, may not quite be what anyone expected.

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