“America will remain the world’s dominant power in the 21st century only if it is the dominant Pacific power,” the since-deceased Lee Kuan Yew often said to me. Lee, the founder of modern Singapore and one of the smartest strategic minds I have ever encountered, spoke about this issue late in life , as he worried about the breakdown of the stability that had allowed for the extraordinary global growth of the past half-century. The key, he was certain, was deep American engagement in Asia, which was quickly becoming the center of global economics and power. Alas, President Trump appears to be doing everything he can to violate Lee’s dictum.
The media got it wrong. The real headline of the Trump-Kim summit — ironically held in Singapore, the city-state that Lee built — should have been: “U.S. weakens its 70-year alliance with South Korea.” The most striking elements of Trump’s initiative were not simply that he lavished praise on North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, but also that he announced the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea, adopting North Korea’s own rhetoric by calling them “provocative.”
The president must have missed his briefing. In fact, it is North Korea that provokes and threatens South Korea, as it has done since it first invaded the South in 1950. North Korea is thought to have about 1 million active-duty troops, almost twice as many as the South, and it has constructed perhaps as many as 20 tunnels to possibly mount a surprise invasion. North Korea also has more than 6,000 pieces of artillery that can reach South Korea, including some whose range is so long that they endanger 32.5 million people, more than half the country’s population, according to a study by the Rand Corp. The Defense Department estimated in 2006 that if North Korea opened artillery fire on the South, 250,000 people would be killed in Seoul alone, the Rand study notes. Of course, about a decade later, North Korea now has up to 60 nuclear bombs, complete with the missiles to deliver them. South Korea’s “war games” with the United States are necessary defensive exercises undertaken in the shadow of an aggressive adversary.
Even worse, Trump signaled that he would like to end the American troop