Home / Geopoliticus / A Grander Strategy at Work?: North Korea, China, and Trump’s Suspension of the U.S.-South Korean Military Exercise
President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in Singapore lasted only a few hours. But it still stirred controversy. In a surprise move, Trump agreed to suspend the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian. For decades, the exercise (and its prior incarnations) had been conducted to ensure that U.S. and South Korean forces were ready to fight together in a large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula. As such, many regarded the exercise as a cornerstone of America’s alliance with South Korea.
Unsurprisingly, the cancellation of the exercise had been one of North Korea’s top demands. At the summit, Pyongyang got what it wanted. What Trump got in return is less clear, apart from the destruction of a North Korean ballistic-missile engine test site. While certainly a welcome step toward denuclearization, it remained well short of living up to Trump’s triumphal tweet that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.”
Hence, former foreign-policy officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations panned Trump’s summit performance and characterized Trump’s suspension of the exercise as “astonishing.” They believed that Trump gave up too much too soon. Not only did he surrender one of America’s biggest bargaining chips early in the negotiation process, but he also parroted North Korea’s characterization of the exercise as “quite provocative.” Added to that, Trump managed to insert only the phrase “complete denuclearization” into his joint statement with Kim, omitting the terms “verifiable” and “irreversible” which U.S. officials had long insisted upon.
What made Trump’s exercise suspension overture even more surprising was that he did not seem to have coordinated it with either America’s regional allies or even his own military. Other analysts critiqued the exercise suspension’s wider ramifications, particularly its potential benefit to China. As one observer declared, “it [was] a huge win for China,” perhaps marking the start of a drawdown of U.S. forces and, with them, American influence from the Asian continent.
The China Factor
Indeed, China may have been the central factor in Trump’s decision to suspend the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise. No doubt, China has long been a pivotal player in any negotiations with North Korea, given China’s substantial economic and political leverage over its neighbor. But Chinese cooperation has rarely come free. In general, Beijing has used its leverage only when doing so furthered its own interests.
Today, those interests are focused on China’s high-stakes trade negotiations with the United States. In fact, those negotiations have grown so contentious that both sides have begun to levy tariffs against one another. It is not hard to imagine that China would use its leverage over North Korea as a bargaining chip in its trade talks with the United States. Thus, to make progress on both fronts, the Trump administration would have to find a way to conclude a North Korean denuclearization deal without Chinese cooperation—in other words, decouple China from North Korea.
In the meantime, decoupling North Korea from China may have also become important for Kim Jong-un and his regime. No doubt they realize that their dependence on China puts North Korea in an unpleasant position, as a pawn in Chinese strategy. China’s increasing willingness to bully its smaller Asian neighbors has probably made North Korean leaders even more anxious. Those concerns—together with a centuries-old Korean suspicion of China—might be driving them to explore new ways to ensure their regime’s survival without being under China’s thumb.
That, incidentally, could explain North Korea’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the elder half-brother of Kim Jong-un, in 2017. The elder Kim, who many once considered to be the logical successor to his father as North Korea’s supreme leader, fell out of favor in Pyongyang and lived in exile in China. Given China’s influence in North Korea, it is easy to imagine Kim Jong-un’s concern that Beijing could replace him with his elder brother, if the younger Kim stepped too far out of line. Killing Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia removed that threat and gave Kim Jong-un more room to maneuver at home.
In such a context, Trump’s suspension of the U.S.-South Korean military exercise, generous as it was, may be an effort to wrap up a North Korean denuclearization deal without the need to rely on China. That would give Trump more leverage in his trade negotiations with China and Kim the ability to strike the best deal for North Korea without having to worry about Chinese interference. In short, both sides may have incentives to sideline China and get a deal done.
Steps Forward (and Back)
Seen in that light, Trump’s “show of good faith” begins to look like part of a grander strategy to change the long-ossified political dynamic in Northeast Asia—change that could dramatically reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula, weaken Chinese influence in the region, and ultimately enable the United States to better posture itself in Asia. After all, if freed from the responsibility of defending South Korea, the United States would have more resources and greater freedom of action to meet future Asian threats.
Of course, much remains unknown after the Singapore summit. But if commentary about Trump’s “transactional” nature is correct, then Trump likely expects more from Kim, well beyond the destruction of one ballistic-missile engine test site. Should Kim fail to deliver on those expectations, Trump would have no qualms about resuming Ulchi Freedom Guardian (or perhaps an even more “provocative” version of it), along with a renewed policy of “maximum pressure.” And, at that time, the United States could rightfully claim that it had done everything it could to reach a deal with North Korea.