Time for Trump to Go ‘America First’ on Korean Peninsula

Relationship with South typifies lopsided arrangements that don't prioritize U.S. interests

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By their words and, more important, their blasé actions, South Korea, China, and Russia are signaling that, though they don’t like it, they ultimately can live with a nuclear-armed North Korea for now. If it’s acceptable for the locals, why should Washington object — especially since its military withdrawal from Korea would remove any North Korean need to attack U.S. territory? It’s also much more credible to threaten U.S. nuclear retaliation, with all its risks, to save American cities than to save South Korean or Japanese cities.

The main counterargument is that U.S. forces still help keep the North at bay and the entire region stable. But North Korea’s emerging nuclear prowess now makes the possible downside for America itself — involvement in nuclear war — far too deep. Moreover, North Korea’s neighbors are amply capable of creating whatever military forces, conventional or nuclear, they need to substitute for America’s.

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Revealingly, it was candidate Trump who recognized last year what a lose-lose proposition North Korea’s nuclear progress had made of America’s entire policy — including economic — toward the peninsula and all of Northeast Asia. Specifically, he observed that a combination of South Korean (and Japanese) defense free-riding — in tandem with what he called his predecessor’s weakness — meant that America could no longer regard Korean and Japanese nuclear deterrents as taboo subjects.

But candidate Trump hinted that greater Asian payments for U.S. protection would bring the problem under control. President Trump needs to realize that what ails its Asian alliances is that the risks now overwhelm any benefits, and that however disruptive an American pullout could be to Asia, the status quo’s dangers for America have become unacceptable.

Alan Tonelson, who writes on economic and security policy at RealityChek, is the author of “The Race to the Bottom” (Westview Press, 2002). Follow him on Twitter: @AlanTonelson[lz_pagination]

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