Secretary Mattis' visit to Korea provided a preview of some of the likely themes of the President's pending trip. Assurances on the alliance have become a staple of high-level visits by Vice President Pence and Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, and they were once again on full display. Given the President's comments at the NATO summit—in which he initially omitted a reference to Article V obligations—there is still some concern on this score. But alliances are not just such assurances; they encompass the working institutions that make the deterrent credible. Here are some nuances from the Mattis visit, drawing on remarks by the Secretary at the DMZ, a joint news conference with Defense Minister Song Young-moo, text of the Security Consultative Meeting communique, and reporting on some comments by Chairman of the Joints Chiefs Dunford on the status of the alliance.
- On script with Tillerson but CVID redux. Secretary Mattis confirmed the logic of coercive diplomacy, effectively ignoring the President's tweets that diplomacy was a waste of time. Although "diplomacy remains our preferred course of action," the Secretary also underlined the belief that such diplomacy is more effective "when backed by credible military force." It is beyond Mattis' writ, and there were no hints at how such diplomacy might unfold. However, the Secretary did revive the stated objective of Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea's weapons program, a throwback to the first Bush administration. To say that CVID is a tall order is an understatement.
- Strategic ambiguity. Much has been made of the President's commitment last month to send more "strategic assets" to South Korea on a rotational basis. Yet the comments by both Secretary Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Dunford seemed purposefully ambiguous about what this really meant. It could be that no precise decisions have been made in this regard. It could also be that whatever signaling is forthcoming using carriers, bombers, or submarines is remaining purposefully low key. As Mattis pointed out, such assets are "global in their positioning. They are global in their reach, and we are quite assured that they are in a position to be responsive if the combined forces commander (inaudible) as necessary." This is close to saying that not much actually need to be done.
- The nuclear umbrella? Read charitably, the President's UN remarks about "totally destroying" North Korea could be construed as little more than a restatement of the nuclear umbrella. The SCM communique, however, notes that the United States is not committed to respond to a North Korean nuclear attack with nuclear weapons; conventional weapons may be adequate:
- "The Secretary reiterated the longstanding U.S. policy that any attack on the United States or its allies will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons will be met with a response that is both effective and overwhelming. The Secretary reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to provide extended deterrence for the ROK using the full range of military capabilities, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella, conventional strike, and missile defense capabilities."
The Secretary was also blunt on the lack of need for reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons, and on both military and political grounds.
- OPCON transfer is back (maybe). President Moon has restated the aspiration to achieve transfer of war-time operational control of ROK forces back to South Korea. Yet Minister Song, Secretary Mattis, and Chairman Joe Dunford all suggested that such transfer will be "conditions based," and there are ample conditions still to be met. These include cyber capabilities, command and control, information sharing, and making missile defense capabilities more seamlessly interoperable.
- The alliance deepens: the political implications. Below the surface churning, the alliance is a complex institution and the North Korean challenge is only going to deepen it. The acronyms tell the story: the Deterrence Strategy Committee (DSC); the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), the Tailored Deterrence Strategy (TDS), the 4D (Detect, Defend, Disrupt, and Destroy) Concept and Principles Implementation, the ROK-US Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) efforts, the public commitment to THAAD and so on. There are two important political implications. North Korea may believe that heightened US-ROK cooperation will pull China away from its toughened-up sanctions line. I would not count on it, particularly given reports that Chinese scientists are increasingly alarmed about possible environmental effects of another test (see the extraordinary Express story here). The second takeaway concerns a pause on exercises. The message out of the SCM: fuhgeddaboudit. The China-Russia freeze-for-freeze proposal seems more and more distant from the current mood in both Washington and Seoul; Beijing is going to have to do better if they want talks to move forward.