Trump-Kim summit: South Koreans wary of losing US defense assurance

President Moon Jae-in has welcomed the diplomatic "success" between Washington and Pyongyang, but many South Koreans believe it's not wise to give up on security guarantees. Fabian Kretschmer reports from Seoul.

The summit in Singapore on Tuesday between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was received in South Korea with a mix of euphoria and guarded optimism.

After the summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it was a "historic event that has helped break down the last remaining Cold War legacy."

Moon also personally commended both Trump and Kim for their "courage and determination" and called the summit a "daring step toward change."

The image of Trump and Kim signing an agreement with their countries' flags in the background was indeed astounding when one considers Washington and Pyongyang have no formal diplomatic relationship.

A symbolic move?

The four-point joint statement between Washington and Pyongyang, however, was relatively short and vague. And while Pyongyang committed to work on "complete denuclearization," no immediate, concrete measures were outlined.

Read more: Trump-Kim summit: More style than substance?

More important for South Korea were President Trump's statements during an hourlong press conference, in which he said that the US would be stopping joint military maneuvers with South Korea, as long as the talks with Pyongyang are ongoing.

For the North, this provides an incentive for the communication process to continue. Additionally, Kim promised to close another rocket testing facility. But for the South, an important defensive posture may be compromised.

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South Korean conservatives criticized the move toward diminishing military cooperation with the US. Hong Joon Pyo, speaker for the conservative Liberty Korea Party, wrote on Twitter that "South Korea's national security is on the edge of a crisis."

The role of China is also looming large in the background as Pyongyang begins to publically commit to reducing its weapons capacity.

Chen-shen Yen, a professor at the Institute of International Affairs at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told DW that China probably has provided a kind of "guarantee" for North Korea in the background.

"If the US changes its mind, China would continue to secretly help North Korea either through military capability or with a security guarantee," said Chen. "It is only because of potential promises from Beijing that Kim was able to appear so self-confident in Singapore."

Read more: Opinion: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's summit of friendliness

Reactions from Seoul

In the South Korean capital, there were mixed reactions to the summit. Kim Sang-jin, a music professor at Seoul National University, told DW that South Korea should be fully independent and eventually insist on the withdrawal of US troops.

"In my opinion, this process should take place very slowly," he said. "The younger generation wants this to happen quicker than I would prefer."

Oh Jin-hyun, a 60-year-old shop owner in Seoul, told DW that joint military maneuvers with the US were important for defense.

"Even if the mood between North and South has become friendlier, we still have the right to our own defense," he said. "I don't think we should give up military exercises with the US."

Read more: US and South Korea to resume joint military exercises

Jin-hyun added that he thought the summit was positive. Most important for him was the potential to once again see family members that he has been separated from since the Korean War in the 1950s.

South Korean local and parliamentary elections are set to take place on July 13, and they too may have an effect on the development of inter-Korean relations.

There are over 4,000 political posts at the local level up for election, including the mayor of Seoul, along with 12 seats in the South Korean National Assembly. President Moon's Democratic Party of Korea currently has 123 out of 300 seats. 

"According to polls, Moon could obtain a left-leaning majority in parliament and be able to put his North Korea policy into law," Sven Schwersensky, director of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation's office in Seoul, told DW. "This continuity could give Kim Jong Un confidence."

Read more: Trump-Kim summit — which country has the strongest military in the region?

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Major achievement

In early June 2017, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time. Testing an ICBM marked a major military achievement for Pyongyang and a serious escalation of tensions with the United States and its allies in the region, particularly South Korea and Japan.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Trouble with warheads

At the time, defense experts said the ICBM could reach as far as the US states of Alaska and Hawaii. However, it was unclear if North Korea can field an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead on its cone that could survive reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. North Korean state media claimed the ICBM was capable of carrying a "large, heavy nuclear warhead" to any part of the United States.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Pyongyang's nuclear tests - six times and counting

The ICBM is believed to be a step forward in the North's nuclear program. Despite pressure from the international community, Pyongyang has made no secret of its nuclear ambitions. Alongside its ritual ballistic missile tests, North Korea has conducted nuclear tests on at least six occasions, including one in September 2017.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

US running out of patience?

Responding to the first ICBM test with a show of force, the US and South Korean troops on conducted "deep strike" precision missile drills using Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the Republic of Korea's Hyunmoo Missile II. In April, the US sent its Carl Vinson aircraft carrier towards the Korean Peninsula, saying it was taking prudent measures against the North.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Testing the boundaries

Ignoring international condemnation, Pyongyang test-launched another rocket on July 28, 2017, just weeks after its first ICBM test. In both of the tests, North Korea used Hwasong-14 missile, but the second one reached a higher altitude and traveled a larger distance than the first one, according to the state media.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Whole of US within range?

Pyongyang conducted its third test November 29, using a newly developed Hwasong-15 missile. US, Japanese and South Korean officials said it rose to about 4,500 km (2,800 miles) and flew 960 kilometers (600 miles) over about 50 minutes before landing in Japan's exclusive economic zone off the country's coast.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

One of the world's largest militaries

Apart from a developing missile and nuclear program, North Korea has a powerful army with 700,000 active troops and another 4.5 million in the reserves. It can call upon almost a quarter of its population to serve in the army at any given time. The North's bloated army is believed to outnumber its southern neighbor's by two-to-one.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Vast capabilities

According to the 2017 Global Firepower Index, the North has, as part of a far-reaching arsenal, 458 fighter aircraft, 5,025 combat tanks, 76 submarines, and 5,200,000 total military personnel. The picture above from 2013 shows leader Kim Jong Un ordering strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Enemies all around

Alongside the United States, Pyongyang views its neighbors South Korea and Japan as its two other main enemies. North Korea has used US military exercises in the region as means of galvanizing its people, claiming that the exercises are dress rehearsals for an impending invasion.

ICBM threat and North Korea's overall military strength

Huge, colorful demonstrations of military might

Every year, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and citizens roll through the streets of the capital Pyongyang to take part in the North's military parades. Preparations for the rallies often begin months in advance, and the parades usually mark important anniversaries linked with the Communist Party or Kim Jong Un's family.