The abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday may foreshadow a high-speed year in U.S.-Korea relations, according to two Korean scholars at the University of Montana.
“(North Korean Leader) Kim Jong-Un is playing for time, and the United States doesn’t have time to wait,” UM associate professor Byeong-Keun You said at a noon lecture with the Mansfield Center. “(President Donald) Trump says ‘I’m going to handle the problem.' But if the Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, it might be difficult for him to pursue his goal. That makes this year the sole critical year.”
He noted that the Trump administration has imposed increasingly heavy sanctions on North Korea for its continued nuclear and missile tests in September, December and February, followed by a warning that a “Phase II” would be next. That option hasn’t been defined, but he said many in Korea suspect it could mean military action.
That puts South Korea in a stressful position, according to graduate teaching assistant Sanghyup Lee. While polls show older Koreans strongly want reunification with North Korea and might support radical action to disarm the north, the growing population of younger Koreans have much less interest. Lee said the South Korean leadership was impressed by Trump’s forceful comments against North Korea during his September visit to Seoul.
“They realized Trump could be good help for South Korea to reunify,” Lee said. “They think the sanctions and pressure are working. More people in South Korea have a positive impression of Trump’s diplomatic strategy. That increases the pressure to reunify soon, while the older majority still supports it.”
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But besides the risk of military damage, reunification could complicate South Korea’s place with its neighbors. Japan and China each have much larger economies that South Korea at the moment, but Lee said both feel threatened by the potential of a unified Korean Peninsula out-competing them. Unification might also mean North Korea’s nuclear weapons would transfer to the combined Korean state instead of being eliminated — an idea that North Korean propagandists have floated.
On the other hand, Chinese officials have said they worry a collapse of the North Korean state could send floods of refugees into China. And South Korea doesn’t want to see greater Chinese influence on its border than already exists.
The South Korean government has its own midterm elections coming later this spring, which might further change the balance of political power in the region.
Back in the United States, Tillerson was seen as a proponent of going slowly with pressure on North Korea, while Trump wanted faster action. Trump announced his intention via Twitter Tuesday morning to replace Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
“He got thrown under the bus not once but twice with Trump,” said UM adjunct professor Owen Sirrs, a former senior intelligence officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Now we have Trump willing to engage with Kim Jong-Un, which is a total reversal of U.S. policy going back decades.”