On the problem of commitment in Korea

I have argued that the key to achieving America’s long-term goals of security and peace in Korea could be a credible long-term commitment to keep American forces out of North Korea, because of China’s special security concerns in this area. Sanctions against North Korea cannot be effective without China’s full support, and such support cannot be expected as long as China fears that any political change in North Korea could open the way for American forces in Korea to advance toward China’s border. Thus, America could increase its ability to achieve its goals in Korea by conceding the priority of Chinese security concerns in the northern part of the Korean peninsula. Such a concession could benefit American interests, even if China offered no specific promises in return, because the reassuring nature of this concession would help to bring China’s interests into closer alignment with America’s interests in this region.

However, these benefits of such a commitment could be realized only if China considered the commitment to be credible. Several commentators have expressed doubts that the American government could make a credible commitment not to expand its military alliance with South Korea over the entire Korean peninsula, if such an expansion were to become possible after a change of regime in the North. Certainly, when the President has withdrawn from major international agreements that had been negotiated by his predecessors, it becomes more difficult for the international community to have confidence in the future credibility of his own long-term promises.

But even when an ability to make credible commitments seems questionable, it is still important for us to consider what such a commitment could achieve. If we do not recognize how a reputation for maintaining commitments could be beneficially applied in international relations, then we will not understand how shifting to an opportunistic America-first policy may actually weaken America’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals today. Furthermore, once we realize that credibility is at the core of the problem, then we can look for other ways to achieve it.

In this case, there is another option. If America’s credibility is weak, then it could be better for South Korea to take more leadership in these strategic questions. After all, American forces are stationed in the Korean peninsula only as allies of South Korea. The South Korean government could stipulate that these allied forces are permitted on its territory only for the limited purpose of repelling or retaliating proportionately against an attack by North Korea. South Korea could further promise that it would never allow its foreign allies to undertake the extended occupation of any territory in North Korea, unless China jointly agreed to such an intervention. Of course the exact terms of such a statement should be the subject of diplomatic discussions with both China and America. My main point is that it could actually be in America’s interest to encourage discussions between South Korea and China about how to craft a mutually acceptable agreement that could be credible and reassuring to China.

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