Unlike most of his recent predecessors, U.S. President Donald Trump is not planning to visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea during his stopover on the peninsula next week.
He should reconsider. Besides the usual photo opportunity of an American leader peering into North Korea, a visit to the DMZ would show Trump something about the dangerous realities of the world's most heavily armed border.
Almost an oxymoron, the DMZ is a small militarized sliver of land, roughly 4km wide, that marks the dividing line between the two Koreas. The tension at the front line, about an hour's drive north of Seoul, is palpable.
A visit would bring home to Trump the terrible impact that a preemptive strike against the North would have, not only on the 20 million South Koreans who live around Seoul, but also the 200,000 Americans who reside in the country and the nearly 40,000 U.S. troops stationed there.
During a time of heightened tension on the Korean peninsula, Trump's visit coincides with three American aircraft carrier battle groups sailing in the region, flyovers by U.S. strategic bombers and calls from conservative South Korean legislators for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were removed from the country in 1991.
Though Trump's rhetoric will likely garner headlines, substantive change will not be forthcoming. Currently, there is no roadmap to a deal with North Korea and in the near-term, there is only a very limited possibility of improving the status quo.
Points of view
As Trump travels from Tokyo to Seoul and on to Beijing, the North Korean nuclear issue will undoubtedly be a key topic of discussion. In each capital, Trump will face different perspectives on how to address the situation.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, bolstered by his party's resounding victory in a recent election, is poised to join hands with Trump to call for increased pressure on North Korea. This may leave South Korean President Moon Jae-in in an awkward position when Trump arrives in Seoul.
Despite his more aggressive rhetoric and South Korea's increased military activity in response to North Korea's recent provocations, Moon's preference is for diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. "Armed conflict must be avoided under any circumstance," he said in a televised address on Nov. 1.
His stance will put him at odds with Abe and Trump, potentially causing tension among the three countries. There is a possibility that Trump's visit will draw into stark relief the gulf between Moon and Trump in terms of perspective and substantive understanding of the issues, including most critically, the catastrophic potential of a "military option."
In China, Trump will likely seek agreement on economic pressure and more stringent sanctions enforcement against Pyongyang. Many in Beijing, however, feel that the country cannot do much more to pressure Pyongyang, short of a full-scale fuel embargo or other drastic move. Further, both North Korea and the U.S. have already rebuffed China's suggestion of a so-called "double freeze" that would include the suspension of Pyongyang's nuclear weapon development program in return for the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The Chinese view is that it is incumbent upon the U.S. to find a way to bridge the current impasse.
Despite the upcoming flurry of activity, and the hardline rhetoric that may follow in the wake of Trump's visit, the reality is that the U.S. is constrained in its policy options. North Korea seems to be on an inexorable march to attain the undeniable ability to reliably strike the continental U.S.
Some experts believe that Pyongyang may have already attained the needed range but that it still needs to refine its technologies for missile re-entry and targeting. North Korea is set to continue the systematic testing of different aspects of its nuclear weapons program until it is confident that it has developed what it sees as an adequate nuclear deterrent.
North Korea's desire for nuclear deterrence stems from recent world events. North Korean diplomats frequently refer to Iraq and Libya as regimes that were displaced due to their inability to deter U.S. intervention.
For the ruling North Korean dynasty, headed by Kim Jong Un, a strong nuclear deterrent is about survival as well as global relevance, domestic legitimacy and improved negotiating leverage if and when Pyongyang decides to re-engage with the U.S. Thus, for the North Korean leadership, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is completely rational. Characterizations of Kim such as Trump's "Little Rocket Man" fail to demonstrate a grasp of this key point.
In South Korea, Trump's hardline stance vis-a-vis the North has been viewed as unproductive. In particular, Trump's continued appeal to a possible "military option," specifically including what some in the U.S. administration have referred to as a potential "preventive war," leaves South Korea understandably uneasy. Besides the questionable legality of such a campaign, the consistent mention of the policy option only bolsters North Korea's resolve to continue developing its nuclear capability.
Typically, an American president's visit to South Korea serves as a symbolic assurance of the close alliance between the two countries. In the context of the military options that have been bandied about, however, Trump is essentially trading the security of cities in the continental U.S. for the safety of Seoul. The launch of a preventive war to protect the U.S. from North Korean attack would almost guarantee a response from Pyongyang that would destroy much of Seoul. This leaves Moon understandably uncomfortable and threatens the underpinnings of the alliance.
One reason why the U.S. pursued bilateral, rather than multilateral, security relationships in Asia with countries like South Korea at the onset of the Cold War was to prevent what Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and likely future U.S. ambassador to South Korea, described as "rogue allies" leading the U.S. into a broader conflict. In this context, Trump is playing the role of rogue ally and potentially landing South Korea in a military conflict it desires to avoid.
South Koreans are not the only stakeholders who are concerned. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, approximately two-thirds of Americans did not support a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Opposition lawmakers introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate in late October that could limit Trump's power to launch a first strike if it were adopted, though that appears unlikely without Republican Party support.
The clear reality is that there will be no easy outcome in the near term. North Korea is committed to refining its nuclear capability and does not wish to negotiate. Consequently, short of military action which would likely result in catastrophic loss of life, there is currently no meaningful way forward.
This is the unfortunate reality that the U.S. and its allies may have to acclimate themselves to for the time being, despite U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis's proclamation that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable.
David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong School of Business.