U.S. and South Korea Back to Pre-Trump Strategies on North Korea

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — The U.S. and South Korea are returning to a pre-Trump era of detailed military planning and large-scale joint exercises in reaction to North Korea’s record number of missile tests in 2022, plus Kim Jong-un’s January 1, 2023 threat of an “exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal.”

People have generally forgotten what preceded former-President Trump’s feel-good initiatives with Kim, which started in 2018.

That was after 2017, Trump’s initial year in office, when the then-President started off tough on Kim. After some North Korean missile tests, in August 2017, Trump claimed Kim’s nuclear threats “will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which the world has never seen before.” 

There actually was concern that America’s new President might take unilateral action against North Korea. According to a new book, Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program, by former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, when Trump said the above, his advisors were debating “whether the United States should initiate a ‘bloody nose’ strike – a limited preventive attack on North Korean nuclear assets and/or its short- and long-range delivery systems.”

Kim’s response came on September 3, 2017, when North Korea’s nuclear program took a leap forward by underground testing a 250-kiloton hydrogen-bomb device. Trump followed by using his first United Nations General Assembly speech as President, on September 19th, to call Kim a “Rocket Man on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

In the background, however, leadership in South Korea had changed. In May 2017, new South Korean President Moon Jae-in assumed power and quietly declared himself willing to engage with North Korea. Initially, there was no response, other than North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

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In his 2018 New Year’s address, Kim claimed that the U.S. was in striking distance of North Korean missiles and boasted he had “a nuclear button on his desk at all times.” But Kim also raised the idea of talks with South Korea’s former President Moon Jae-in along with proposing North Korean participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics being held in South Korea in February.

Trump initially responded negatively via Twitter, writing, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump officials also made clear that no talks between North and South Korea would work until Kim agreed to abandon his nuclear weapons.

However, South Korea’s President Moon took up Kim’s offer and by late January, it was agreed there would be combined Korean team participants in the winter games which would run through February 2018.

Meanwhile, at Moon’s urging, the U.S. agreed to postpone planned March 2018, joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, named Foal Eagle, which in past years, had involved over 10,000 U.S. troops and 290,000 South Koreans. It was also an idea the Trump administration had rejected earlier when proposed by China.

During the games, North and South Korean delegations met and one outcome was an invitation from Kim for summit meetings with Presidents Moon and Trump. A week before meeting Moon, Kim announced he was closing his nuclear test sites and suspending missile tests, but not before saying North Korea had developed nuclear weapons along with long-range missiles to deliver them.

A week later, on April 26, 2018, Kim and President Moon met in the demilitarized zone between the two countries and agreed on “the common goal of…a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” Then, despite several postponements, the June 12 summit of Kim and Trump took place in Singapore.

They signed a joint statement, in which they agreed to new, peaceful relations and to “work toward” the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through follow-up negotiations between high-level officials. Trump stated at the post-summit news conference that he wanted to end all U.S.-South Korea military exercises, calling them “provocative” and “expensive” war games.

Trump’s then-National Security Advisor John Bolton subsequently told the BBC that during the Singapore talks, “Trump, out of nowhere, said, ‘I’m going to cancel the war games [as he called them]. There’s no need for them, they’re expensive and it will make you [Kim] happy.’ I [Bolton] couldn’t believe it.”

Bolton continued, “[Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, [Chief of Staff John] Kelly and I were sitting there in the room with Trump and we weren’t consulted. It came simply from Trump’s own mind. It was an unforced error; it was a concession for which we got nothing in return.”

Although senior meetings took place over the next few months after the Singapore summit, and Trump had tweeted that North Korea “is no longer a Nuclear Threat,” Pyongyang continued its production of nuclear fuel and weapons, and steadily improved its missile capabilities.

The next agreement between Trump and Kim was to have a second summit, which was held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019. It collapsed quickly after Kim offered to dismantle only a major nuclear facility, but no elimination of his nuclear weapons, if the U.S. lifted all economic sanctions.

Trump’s response, he told reporters later, was “basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, but we couldn’t do that…Sometimes you have to walk.”

After Hanoi, there was little diplomatic contact between Washington and Pyongyang although, apparently, Kim and Trump continued to exchange personal letters. According to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, Trump allowed Woodward to read more than 20 letters between the president and the North Korean leader that Woodward described as “love letters.”

In a June 10, 2019, Kim letter to Trump said, “I also believe that the deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force that leads the progress of the DPRK [North Korea]-U.S. relations, clearing all the hurdles we face in the process of bringing about the developments we seek to achieve,” according to CNN, which said it came from Woodward.

In March 2021, with Joe Biden as President, the U.S. and South Korea renewed their annual nine-day joint military activities, but they were limited to computer-simulated, command post exercises and were described as strictly defensive in nature.

Since then, with North Korea increasing its nuclear stockpile and missile development tests, plans are to step up joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

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At last Tuesday’s press conference in South Korea with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin,  South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup made clear that the focus will be on activities that emphasize joint nuclear operations as a way of deterring North Korean use of nuclear weapons.

At the press conference, Lee said that later this month, there will be a so-called tabletop exercise (TTX) on how the U.S. and South Korea might respond to North Korean nuclear threats.

Using the results of the TTX, Lee said, the two sides would “update and revise” the “Tailored Deterrence Strategy, before this year’s Security Consultative Meeting,” scheduled for Seoul later this year.

Last December 20, there was a joint flight training exercise with deployed U.S. B-52 strategic bombers and F-22 fighters along with Korean F-35s and F-15s in what Lee called “the embodiment of extended deterrence in action.”

In a joint statement issued last Tuesday, the U.S. and South Korea pledged to “continue to deploy U.S. strategic assets in a timely and coordinated manner in the future.” At the press conference Defense Secretary Austin said, “You can look for more of that kind of activity going forward.”

Lee said that the annual Foal Eagle spring field exercises will be held at 2016’s division level,  and will include amphibious landing drills, and will last 11 days without interruption. Also involved, will be launching of South Korea’s first military observation satellite and a final test of its domestically made solid-fuel space rocket.

Usually, the scenarios of these exercises remain classified, so the public doesn’t get a real sense of what is being practiced.

However, at last December’s Security Consultative Meeting, South Korean and U.S. officials committed to update OPLAN 5015, the so-called joint operations plan against North Korea.

Back in 2016, thanks to media leaks to Japanese and Korean newspapers, the American website Globalsecurity.org claimed OPLAN 5015 “called for a prompt response to a North Korean attack with a preventive strike on the North’s core military facilities and weapons as well as its top leaders.”

The Washington Post reported in March 2016, that the 2016 Foal Eagle exercises would “revolve around a wartime plan, OPLAN 5015” that had been adopted in 2015, but had not been made public. The Post story went on to say that according to reports in the South Korean media, OPLAN 5015 “includes a contingency for surgical strikes against the North’s nuclear weapons and missile facilities, as well as ‘decapitation’ raids to take out North Korea’s leaders.”

If OPLAN 5015 provided those scenarios for the 2016 Foal Eagle exercises, it would not be surprising to see this year’s stepped-up exercises include more public participation of American strategic nuclear delivery systems.

That would put a bit of reality behind the words of Biden’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review which said, “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime. There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”

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