Negotiating the Right Agreement: Looking Beyond the Nuclear Side of North Korea

There are good reasons why the United States should be extremely cautious in meeting with North Korea. Few countries have a longer history of using negotiations as a political weapon, rather than seeking meaningful agreements and sticking to them. Kim Jong-un is scarcely the kind of leader whose past indicates the he will suddenly see relations with the United States as anything other than a two-person zero-sum game – an adversarial relationship where he can only benefit at America's expense.

At the same time, the tight June deadline for a meeting, President Trump's need for political victories, and an "America First" approach to negotiating with North Korea could present problems from the U.S. side. On the one hand, these pressures might lead the President to be too demanding and to ask North Korea to give up its nuclear program more quickly than it finds feasible, and before it secures any reciprocal gains.

On the other hand, they might lead the U.S. to carry out negotiations where progress in dismantling North Korea's nuclear forces programs involves concessions regarding the U.S. presence in South Korea, the level of U.S. exercise activity in South Korea and the region, and the credibility of the U.S. posture in both Korea and Japan. This possibility might be reinforced by the fact that South Korea's leader, Moon Jae-in is committed to seeking better relations with the North, and has not been strong on deterrence and defense.

Reaching some agreement that actually eliminates North Korea's capability to deploy a nuclear-armed ICBM or other missile threat to the United States would deal with a critical future threat to U.S. national security. A cosmetic agreement that does not eliminate this threat would not, however, serve any strategic purpose, particularly if it undermined the credibility of U.S. capability to deter and defend South Korea or Japan.

Moreover, the U.S. cannot take a narrow "America first" approach to such negotiations. The U.S. cannot afford to trade a reduction in the threat to the U.S. for an increase in the risk to South Korea or Japan. Putting America first before the security of two critical Asian allies and economic partners would not only undermine the U.S. position throughout the Pacific and Asia, it would critically undermine the credibility of the U.S. strategic posture relative to China at a time when U.S. strength with be critical to giving Chinese the motivation to seek cooperation with the U.S. rather than competition.

Here, Secretary Mattis' remarks about China, Asia, and the Pacific before the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 2nd make several critical points:

...America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater, our interests, and the regions are inextricably intertwined. Our Indo-Pacific strategy makes significant security, economic, and development investments, ones that demonstrate our commitment to allies and partners in support of our vision of a safe, secure, prosperous, and free Indo-Pacific based on shared principles with those nations, large and small.

Ones who believe their future lies in respect for sovereignty and independence of every nation, no matter its size, and freedom for all nations wishing to transit international waters and airspace, in peaceful dispute resolution without coercion, in free, fair, and reciprocal trade and investment, and in adherence to international rules and norms that have provided this region with relative peace and growing prosperity for the last decades.

To these principles, America is true in both word and deed. In our economics, we seek fair competition. We do not practice predatory economics, and we stand consistent with our principles. The U.S. strategy recognizes no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific.

For those who want peace and self-determination, we all have shared responsibility to work together to build our shared future. As we look to that future, our Indo-Pacific strategy will bring to bear U.S. strengths and advantages, reinvigorating areas of underinvestment.

... A central element of our strategy is strengthening of our alliances and partnerships in terms of mutual benefit and trusted relationships. We are committed to working by, with, and through allies and partners to address common challenges, to enhance shared capabilities, to increase defense investment where appropriate, to improve interoperability, to streamline information sharing, and to build networks of capable and like-minded partners.

In Northeast Asia, the dynamic security environment continues to underscore the importance of our robust alliance and partner relationships. On the Korean Peninsula, we hold the line with our ally, supporting our diplomats who lead this effort. Our objective remains the complete, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear – denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the international community is in alignment here, as evidenced by multiple unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The U.S. can only make good on these words, and serve its own strategic interests, if it maintains a strong force posture in Northeast Asia. However, America's posture is already questionable. North Korean – and sometimes Chinese – propaganda aside, the U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan are scarcely a major offensive threat.

As Figure One shows, they would represent a near-minimum level of deterrent and defense capability even if they – and all U.S. power projection forces in the Pacific and other regions were fully ready. Moreover, for all of its economic strength, and its considerable military forces, South Korea's economy, population centers, and capital are uniquely vulnerable – something that becomes far clearer when one looks in detail at the Korean military balance – a comparison provided in The Korean Civil -Military Balance (

Past spending cuts have led to a major reduction in U.S military readiness even in its forward deployed forces, and a much larger one in its power projection capabilities. These will be partly corrected by the increases in defense spending that the Trump Administration plans for FY2019, but it will probably take at least half a decade of similar increases to put U.S. forces on a stable path where they can recover from the impact of the cuts in U.S. spending caused by the Budget Control Act and the combination of wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

North Korea is scarcely the only potential threat. Regardless of what happens in North Korea – and so far, there is no indication that it North Korea will cut any aspect of its forces that threaten South Korea – the U.S. faces a steady rise in Chinese forces and military spending. It would take a totally different pattern of negotiation between the United States and China to have a major impact on the threat in Northeast Asia, and this assumes that Russia will not seek to put any pressure on the U.S. from its Pacific coast.

This is also a case where "burden sharing" does not offer any credible alternative. It would be desirable to see Japan and South Korea spend more on defense, and see them cooperate far more directly. No credible amount of South Korean or Japanese spending, however, can compensate for the deterrent effect of a forward U.S. presence and a credible U.S. capability to rapidly project power to Japan and South Korea. This credibility requires forward deployed U.S. forces – not simply to provide combat power but to allow the U.S. to project power quickly and effectively, and prove the level of U.S. commitment to its allies and potential threats.

Effective power projection also requires joint training in the areas where the U.S. might have to fight. The U.S. is now dealing with steadily more effective, modern, and combat ready forces in China every year, and with a mix of North Korean conventional and asymmetric forces near the South Korean border that are effectively combat-ready for war.

Relying on U.S. forces in the U.S. and Hawaii to somehow know how to cooperate effectively with South Korean or Japanese forces that they do not regularly exercise train, and cooperate with on a realistic basis would mean having to reinforce with the modern of equivalent of "Task Force Smith" – the desperately understrength 400 man infantry force the U.S. rushed to South Korea just after the North invaded, and whose lack of proper equipment, strength, and close ties to its allies led to its near destruction after only 5 hours of combat in July 1950.

These are not reasons not to meet with North Korea, or to fail to seek some form of nuclear agreement and reduction in tensions and movement towards lasting stability and peace. They are, however, decisive reasons to be extremely careful, to avoid putting political gains before national security, and to focus as much on the security of South Korea and Japan – our strategic partners – as on the still nascent North Korean nuclear threat to the United States.


Figure One: How Much is Too Little? U.S. Forces in South Korea and Japan

In South Korea: 28,000 troops

  • US Army:
    • 19,200 troops.
    • 8th Army headquarters, 2nd Infantry Division Headquarters, one armored brigade, one combat helicopter brigade, one multiple rocket launcher brigade, one air defense brigade, One THAAD anti-missile defense brigade.
    • M-1 tanks, M2/M2 Bradley, M270 MLRS, AH-94 attack helicopters. Patriot SAMs,
  • US Navy: 250 troops
  • US Marines: 250 troops
  • US Air Force: 8,800 troops.
    • 7th Air Force Headquarters
    • 2 fighter wings with 3 F-16C/D Squadrons with 40-60 fighters
    • ​1 antitank aircraft squadron with 24 A-10Cs

In Japan: 39,950 troops

  • US Army:
    • 2,900 troops.
    • 1 Corps headquarters, 1 Special forces Group, 1 aviation battalion, 1 surface-to-air missile battalion
    • 8th Army headquarters, 2nd Infantry Division Headquarters, one armored brigade, one combat helicopter brigade, one multiple rocket launcher brigade, one air defense brigade, One THAAD anti-missile defense brigade.
    • M-1 tanks, M2/M2 Bradley, M270 MLRS, AH-94 attack helicopters. Patriot SAMs,
  • US Navy:
    • 11,700 troops
    • 1 carrier, 3 guided missile cruisers, 5-7 guided missile destroyers, and 1LCC, 4 MCO, 1 LHD, 1 LPD, and 1 LSD
  • US Marines:
    • 13,600 troops
    • 1 Marine Division, 1 regiment HQ, 1 artillery regiment HQ, 1 recce battalion, 1 amphibious assault battalion, 1 artillery battalion, 1 Fighter squadron with 12F-18C, 1 fighter squadron with 12F-18D, 1 fighter squadron with 12F-F-35B-II plus 12 KC-130J tankers, and 12 MV-22B Osprey VSTOL transports
  • US Air Force: 11,450 troops.
    • 5th Air Force Headquarters
    • 1 fighter wing with 2 Squadrons with 22 F-16C/D fighters; 1 fighter wing with 2 fighter squadrons 27 F-15C/D, 1 fighter squadron with 12 F-35A-II, 1 ISR squadron with RC-135, 1 special forces group with 5 MC-130H and 5 MC-130J.
    • 15 KC-135R tankers, 2 EC-3B/C AWACS, 10 HH-60 helicopters, 10C-130H transports, 3 Beech 1900C IS&R, 5 RQ-4A Global Hawk UAVs.
    • Squadrons with 22 Fighters
  • US Strategic Command: 2 AN/TPY2 X-band radars.

Adapted from: IISS, Military Balance, 2018, p.60.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy