North Korea summit spotlights the battle for influence on South Korea

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As the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un draws near, it seems that the real prize on the table has not yet been mentioned, and that is the longstanding predominant influence over South Korea.

Since the Battle of Inchon in 1950, American hegemony south of the 38th parallel has been the central foundation of the extraordinary political freedom and spectacular economic ascendancy of the South Korea. Anchored by U.S. Indo Pacific Command in Hawaii and U.S. Air Force capabilities in Guam, the U.S. system of military and naval bases and treaty commitments across Asia provided a period of remarkable post-World War II economic development for South Korea.

{mosads}It also encompassed Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and by extension Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Moreover, the countries of Southeast Asia were drawn to the American orbit by virtue of the massive growth of two-way trade between the United States and Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, which by the 1990s exceeded bilateral trade with NATO allies like France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Indeed, over the next 25 years, if the leadership of any Asian government, except that in Hanoi, were asked what foreign capital was the single most influential, the answer would have been, without hesitation, Washington. Following the failure of U.S. policy in Indochina in 1975, a lengthy process of American withdrawal and an erosion of U.S. military presence took place. Bases in Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines were shut down or pushed out by now queasy governments no longer sure of American staying power. Still, the perception of U.S. predominance remained.

In 1999, as American ambassador to Cambodia, I posed that same question at the annual gathering of U.S ambassadors to East Asia, about which country they thought would be considered most influential by their host governments. Almost all of my colleagues posited that it would be the United States. I then described what I had observed in Cambodia of the dramatic surge in demonstrations of soft power by China, which was shaping attitudes and undercutting U.S. influence. I warned that this situation could become more widespread in the new millennium. There was polite but widespread scoffing at my premonition.

But now, I would guess that only four Asian capitals would acknowledge the United States as the most influential country: Tokyo, Singapore, Taipei and Seoul. In three of those cases, it is because of the military commitment to come to their defense if attacked, including the use of nuclear weapons. In all other Asian capitals, leaders privately, if not publicly, now consider Beijing as the central influence on their affairs.

So the question is whether there is a unseen agenda within the U.S.-North Korean summit negotiations to undercut the U.S. presence in and commitment to the defense of Seoul, and at the same time to convince the South Korean political leadership that the extraordinary economic entity they have created is best protected under Beijing’s suzerainty, rather than by a defense treaty with Washington.

Hyperbolic exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang months ago may have caused the leadership in Seoul to see their fate more threatened by their defense commitment with the United States. If an American preemptive military strike were to occur, part of any likely response by North Korea would almost certainly include missiles fired at U.S. military bases in South Korea, causing extraordinary destruction of the social stability on which South Korea’s prosperity has been built.

Now there is a historic deal on the table at the summit in Singapore. On the one side, the demand is for the total elimination of North Korea’s nuclear capability, completely verified by intrusive international inspections. In return, Pyongyang will likely insist on the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, also verified by outside inspections. The question is whether the United States would agree to such a requirement.

American policy has always been to never confirm nor deny whether nuclear weapons are present at any U.S. military facility. We would also never allow inspections of our bases. If the price of totally eradicating North Korea’s nuclear capability is to have inspections of our military facilities in South Korea, then the choice may be to either change American policy on inspections of U.S. bases or the withdrawal all of our troops. The latter would seem the more likely choice.

In such a deal, America would, without question, be safe from North Korean missile attacks, but South Korea would no longer have the tripwire of U.S. troops to hold back conventional pressure from Beijing or Pyongyang. In such a radically changed circumstance and amid such negotiations, the bottom line question is, what foreign capital will be seen as the most influential by the government in Seoul?

Kenneth Quinn served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia during the Clinton administration and as deputy U.S. ambassador to the Philippines during the Reagan administration. He spent more than 30 years as a career foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.

Tags Donald Trump Global Affairs Military North Korea South Korea United States

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