Don’t jump to conclusions about President-elect Donald Trump pulling back on US commitments to Asian security — just the opposite may be true — nor should anyone expect a huge defense spike from a jittery Japan, says noted Korea expert Scott A. Snyder.
Snyder is a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the director of the influential policy group’s program on US-Korea policy.
The author of numerous books on Korea’s relations with Japan and China also believes a German-style unification of South and North Korea would prove problematic — even if current political hurdles were swept away.
Snyder spoke to Asia Times about the security outlook for Japan and South Korea in the face of a Trump presidency and a nuclear-armed regime in North Korea.
Asia Times: North Korea, with its nukes, remains an existential threat for Japan. Will Prime Minister Abe sharply upgrade Japan’s defense capability to deal with Pyongyang if Trump cuts US support?
Snyder: It is premature to speculate on Trump’s Asia and North Korea policies. I believe Trump has backed away from and not repeated campaign comments regarding alliances with Japan and South Korea. Two Trump advisers have argued in Foreign Policy that the Trump administration would work to expand US investment in Asian security, and especially increases in naval assets.
AT: What can we glean from Trump’s diplomatic contacts with Japan and South Korea thus far?
Snyder: The Trump team’s initial contacts with Japan and South Korea have reportedly been reassuring to the governments of Japan and South Korea. Japan’s investments in defense capability continue to be gradual and have been constrained by the need to maintain domestic support within Japan.
AT: Would North Korea up the ante by conducting further nuclear/missile tests or staging a military incident to test Trump’s mettle?
Snyder: North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear and missile tests has primarily been driven by its own internal needs or that internal considerations have consistently outweighed external efforts to dissuade North Korea from testing.
North Korea’s goal is to secure international recognition of the country as a nuclear weapons state. Testing is one way to assert that proposition; therefore, it puts pressure on the new president to fashion an effective response, in part because it is a direct challenge to US objections against a nuclear North Korea.
AT: Will Japan and South Korea increase defense cooperation if Trump reduces the US commitment?
Snyder: It would be natural for South Korea and Japan to work more closely with each other on security issues if indeed the US retrenches. As long as South Korea and Japan are focused forward, it is easier for them to work together, but problems emerge as a result of differences over the past.
AT: Is there a basis for Japan and China to move closer against this backdrop?
Snyder: I do not see prospects for close cooperation between Japan and China, but there may be a good rationale for both countries to more actively manage the relationship by agreeing to disagree.
AT: Could South Korea and North Korea ever unify “German-style” or would the resulting social turmoil prove too great?
Snyder: Although South Koreans have closely studied the German model for reunification, there may be more differences than similarities. Plus, North Korea clearly rejects reunification by absorption.
AT: How is the case for Korean unification dissimilar from Germany’s?
Snyder: The socio-economic, political, and cultural gaps between North and South Korea are larger than in the German case, and the geopolitical context is different, given the decline of the Soviet Union in the German context and the rise of China in the contemporary Korean context.
Younger generation South Koreans increasingly identify as South Korean rather than with the ideal of a unified Korean nation. However, the emotional pull of the ideal of Korean unification is still strong for the older generation.
Doug Tsuruoka is Asia Times Editor-at-Large