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After Singapore

By Peter O’Brien

Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research

Published June 26, 2018

So, Trump and Kim met in Singapore and discussed a wide range of issues; nothing definitive was signed, but there was a verbal understanding that the US would end major military exercises in the Republic of Korea (ROK); the North would suspend further tests on their nuclear and ICBM forces and dismantle some assets; that they would work to the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula; and that talks would continue to work out a detailed agreement between the two countries.
And, during the past few days US and ROK personnel have met to work out the details for ending these large, annual “war-games.”
It’s important to understand the geography of the situation; Seoul, capital of the South, and Pyongyang, capital of the North, are some 115 miles apart (a little less than the distance from Washington DC to Philadelphia.) Seoul is about 15 miles from the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). The DMZ snakes across the peninsula, and just north of it is a large slice of the North Korean People’s Army, perhaps several hundred thousand troops within 20 or 30 miles of the DMZ. To put that in perspective, imagine a long arc of troops on a line from the northern end of the Chesapeake, through Bowie Maryland, out to Morgantown, WV, and north of that line our enemy has a quarter of a million troops.

Further complicating things, Seoul is huge and densely packed, with 25 million people in the greater metropolitan area; North Korean conventional artillery can range most of Seoul.

With that as context, some thoughts.

First, the precise meaning of the word “denuclearization” is important, and unknown. To the North it certainly means withdrawal of US forces. What the US and the ROK would agree to isn’t clear, but it would be far less than that, and must include the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear weapon program (referred to as CVID). Getting there may well be an impossibility, but that’s what we want.
Second, ending the war-games is a big deal, but not as big as it might appear. The combat training of the various units, and integration of US forces with ROK forces, can continue at lower levels, and certainly without the participation of the major headquarters elements. Training of headquarters elements to allow for honing of various plans could take place in smaller pieces, independent of actual forces (what are known as command post exercises) and there could always be provisions for some training to occur in the US.

Certainly, there is reason to be concerned. We need to be smart about this, and recognize the risk, but not let a change in how we train result in a loss of capability.
Third, we need to remember that the ROK Army is going to do most of the work. Today’s ROK Army is a far different force than it was 30 years ago, with 450,000 well trained troops, with superb equipment, far superior to most of the equipment held by the North. The ROK Air Force is also well equipped and well-trained and head-to-head is more than a match for the North Korean Air Force.
Fourth, we should, at a minimum, beef up the intelligence effort focused on North Korea – and China. In a geography as constrained as Korea, any reduction in readiness, even the smallest, warrants a renewed effort to improve intelligence collection, analysis and warning. This will also be necessary to ensure early detection of any effort to circumvent the “CVID,” particularly with China’s help. We should also expand ballistic missile warning and missile defense capabilities both on the peninsula and in Japan in order to backstop our efforts. Reagan noted more than 30 years that we needed to “trust but verify,” but he also beefed up our defenses. We need to follow that model.

That said, we need to remember something: several months ago we were increasingly concerned as to what was about to happen. A good friend of mine was on the receiving end of a phone call from his son that he (the son) had just been notified that missiles were inbound to Hawaii. We seem to have walked back from that edge right now. That’s a start. Let’s see if President Trump and Secretary Pompeo can keep this moving and actually achieve CVID. If they can it will be worth it.