US Vice President Mike Pence will arrive in Seoul Sunday, flying into a geopolitical maelstrom amid a possible North Korean nuclear test and harsh US warnings about a military response.
Pence’s first visit to South Korea — part of an Asia swing that also includes stops in Japan, Indonesia and Australia — was conceived months ago, but could hardly come at a time of higher tension.
On Sunday, the UK’s Sunday Times reported that top military advisers to US President Donald Trump have told their British counterparts that Washington was considering a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear program, and believed it had the firepower to neutralize it.
Citing “senior sources” in the British government, the paper said the US believed it would be able to “utterly destroy” the key installations required to remove the threat the program posed to North Korea’s neighbors and the US.
According to the paper, US Defense Secretary James Mattis discussed a US strike on North Korea with his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, some two weeks ago, and similar conversations have been held between British officials and Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.
“They’ll do anything it takes. Nothing is off the table. They think they’ve got the capabilities to target things and utterly destroy them. They are confident they know where everything is and can target it efficiently,” one British official was quoted as saying.
Another source told The Sunday Times that US officials “are getting to the point where they think they may have to take out the facilities preemptively…. They are much closer to taking military action than they were a year ago.”
In the last week, geo-spatial imaging showed North Korea possibly preparing a nuclear test to coincide with the 105th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-Sung.
Trump has warned that North Korea will be dealt with and officials have confirmed that military action is being considered, although it has not been approved.
That issue will be top of the agenda when Pence begins talks with South Korea’s interim Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn on Monday, and in Tokyo during talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Both Japan and South Korea are firmly in the firing line and will want to caution against any US military action that could prompt a broader conflagration.
Away from immediate security matters, Pence will try to reassure allies concerned about Trump’s commitment to decades-old security guarantees and protectionist rhetoric.
US officials acknowledge Trump’s message of “America first” has at times been read by allies as meaning “everyone else last.”
Pence’s message will be that America’s security and economic commitments are enduring and “ironclad,” according to a senior White House foreign policy adviser.
That commitment, aides say, will be underscored by Pence’s very personal ties to South Korea.
Sixty-four years ago to the day, his father, Lieutenant Edward Pence, was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in the Korean War.
In Seoul, Pence will try to steer clear of South Korea’s tumultuous domestic politics ahead of elections next month. He is not expected to sit down with opposition leaders who could take the reins next month.
But he will no doubt address worries in Washington that any new government may slow-walk the deployment of THAAD — a system designed to shoot down missiles from North Korea or elsewhere.
The United States has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea and is keen to see the project fully deployed.
The issue has been complicated by China’s furious opposition to the prospect of having a high-tech radar system on its doorstep, fearing it could partially neutralize its nuclear deterrent.
Beijing has responded though diplomatic pressure and economic coercion, souring relations with Seoul.
But Pence, whose public message at times seems at odds with Trump’s, will have plenty of work to do to reassure South Korea that the United States is a reliable partner.
Trump has repeatedly complained that the United States shoulders too much of the burden for other countries’ defense and has suffered under bilateral and regional trade agreements.
An agreement on who pays for US troops in South Korea is due to expire next year, and South Korea — where anti-US sentiment is high — could be asked to pay more.
Trump has also called for a review of all bilateral trade agreements, including the five-year-old US-South Korea deal — or KORUS.
The new US president’s relentless focus on trade deficits has some of the deal’s supporters dismayed.
“There is not a valid reason to be concerned about KORUS,” former US diplomat and trade negotiator Wendy Cuttler, who helped negotiate the deal, told a Korea Society event this week.
“I don’t think it’s correct to judge the success of a trade agreement on the basis of a bilateral trade deficit.”
According to Cuttler, the deficit has more to do with steady US economic growth that has raised demands for Korean imports.
Others point to tens of billions of dollars worth of South Korean investment into the United States, which is estimated to have created some 50,000 American jobs.