The election of Republican Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States has come as a major shock, both in the U.S. and across the world. With polls up until the very last minute predicting that his Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would easily ride to victory, many are left stunned at the surprise victory.
So what might President Trump mean for North Korea? The answer is complex. For one thing, North Korean state media has endorsed the bombastic billionaire, having referred to him in May as a “wise politician” and “far-sighted presidential candidate.”
The implications for the peninsula are broader, however. Trump has suggested he would sit down with Kim Jong Un and “eat hamburgers” with the North Korean leader, but has also suggested that China should intervene against the DPRK, suggested that U.S. troops could be withdrawn from South Korea, and expressed support for the nuclearization of Japan and South Korea.
To get to grips with this unprecedented result, NK News reached out to scores of experts around the world. The following North Korea specialists responded on time for our Wednesday deadline:
- Aidan Foster-Carter – Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England
- Bruce Klingner – Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation
- Chang Booseung – Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at RAND Corporation
- Cheong Seong-chang – Senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute
- Choi Young-il – a Seoul-based political pundit and a professor affiliated with Kyunghee University
- David Straub – Associate Director of the Korea Program
- Daniel Pinkston – Lecturer in International Relations at Troy University
- Donald Kirk – noted foreign correspondent and East Asia expert
- Yang Uk – Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum (KODEF)
- Yang Moo-Jin – Professor at the University of North Korean Studies (UNKS)
1. What does a Trump victory mean for South Korea’s nuclear aspirations?
However, most of the South Korean experts have said that an independent nuclear armament was impossible as they considered there was a slim chance that Trump, who is positive about the South and Japan’s nuclear armament, would win the presidential election.
However, I expect that new opinions supporting nuclear armament will rapidly spread through South Korean academic circles as Donald Trump is elected as the next President.
Trump has said he approved South Korea’s nuclear armament in the context of defense burden sharing. This means the South should defend the country by themselves and decide whether they have nuclear weapons or not.
However, it’s highly unlikely that the South will develop nuclear weapons since all the members, including China, in the international society don’t agree with the South’s nuclear armament.
To do so would run completely counter to the entire history of U.S. foreign and security policy since the beginning of the nuclear era, and resistance to it within the national security establishment would be terrifically strong, not to mention globally.
This creates extreme instability in East Asia. Also, Trump does not seem to appreciate international security institutions such as the NPT, and the nonproliferation regime more broadly, will be damaged without U.S. support.
With a weakening of the nuclear nonproliferation, the ROK will be further emboldened to acquire its own nuclear deterrent.
However, there are high chances that Trump’s victory will lead to Washington’s request for Seoul to pay more for its defense cost – such as for the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella, deployment of THAAD, U.S. Forces’ stay in Korea – leading to the possible economic shock for the Seoul government.
Donald Trump’s victory will give a substantial boost to advocates of a nuclear South Korea. He has said both South Korea and Japan should have nukes. This supports his view that the U.S. should be pulling troops from South Korea and Japan, leaving them to their own defenses. Nuclear weapons could be seen as an integral part of those defenses – just as North Korea has repeatedly said it needs nukes for defensive purposes.
Of course, nukes are much more than “defensive” – and the implications for nuclear-armed Northeast Asian states eventually using them are disturbing.
“Bewilderment” and “uncertainty” will be the keywords for the assessing the 2016 presidential election and the path ahead.
Trying to predict President Trump’s policy toward Asia, or any global region for that matter, is difficult if not impossible.
We are in uncharted territory because Trump has not articulated an Asian policy nor does he even have an identifiable cadre of Asian advisors.
To try to project how Donald Trump will deal with any given policy issue is a fool’s errand. Trump is notorious for advancing policies that are altogether unlikely to transpire, such as building a wall along the Mexican border or imposing 40% across-the-board tariffs.
He is also well-known for making casual comments that may or may not be serious, for example with respect to nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia. We also still do not know who his core Asia policy and Korea advisors will be.
Will he bring in complete outsiders or will he be forced to draw on those reflecting the longer-standing bipartisan consensus on the region? And who, exactly, will even be willing to work with the administration?
I think those who support nuclear armament believe that Trump’s victory can be a golden opportunity to push forward it.
However, I don’t think so.
When we consider the context where the word ‘nuclear armament’ is used, Trump didn’t say that South Korea should go nuclear, but he argued the South should pay fair prices if they want to be under the shelter of the so-called the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If not, the South should develop nuclear weapons. It doesn’t mean that the U.S. would help the South.
Obviously, Trump’s election as President of the United States will be encouraging for proponents of the South Korean indigenous nuclear weapons program because Trump has remarked in one of his interviews that he would let South Korea and Japan have their own nuclear weapons once he is elected.
However, South Koreans should notice that Trump has never explicitly said he would allow South Korea to have nuclear weapons. The emphasis was always put on more burden sharing from Japan and South Korea. That is, Trump wants South Korea and Japan to pay more for their defenses.
Therefore, it is likely that the first demand from “President” Trump on South Korea and Japan will be to provide more host nation support for USFK and USFJ. But if the South Koreans and the Japanese find the demand too high, then, they will begin to think about more cost efficient tools of defense including their own nuclear weapons.
2. How can we expect North Korea to respond to Trump’s victory?
North Korea has showed off the superiority of their nuclear capabilities against South Korea since they considered there was little chance that the South and Japan could go nuclear due to the U.S. opposition.
But the North should prepare for a new situation where the North may deal with the South and Japan with nuclear weapons. Therefore, I understand that the North is preoccupied to find new ways to deal with Donald Trump’s U.S.
Even though the North may have negative perceptions of Trump, the North welcomes Trump’s victory in the sense that they expect that they can have a direct dialogue with the U.S. and the U.S. – South Korea alliance will be weakened rather than strengthened.
Pyongyang has its own interests and positions, including a complete unwillingness to contemplate giving up its nuclear weapons program. That will not change as a result of the U.S. election.
If Mr. Trump wins, North Korea will adjust its propaganda and it might propose things such as “unconditional” high-level talks with his administration; if such talks were held, they would fail, sooner or later, because of the huge gap in national (i.e., regime) interests.
I expect them to challenge U.S. resolve, and if the U.S. abandons the ROK and Seoul subsequently seeks its own nuclear deterrent, North Korea will have an incentive to launch preemptive strikes or preventive war before the ROK deploys its nuclear arsenal.
Kim Jong Un might suggest for a U.S.-North Korea summit early in Trump’s tenure, and he might accept Kim’s request impulsively. But the direction of this talk, should it happen, would be unforeseeable at this point.
North Korea’s response could be carefully ambivalent. North Korean media has been totally critical of U.S. policy, heaping insults on President Barack Obama as it does on President Park Geun-hye, but the North also is encouraged by Trump saying the U.S. should withdraw its troops from South Korea. North Korea cannot be happy, however, about Trump’s view that China should dictate policy for North Korea and compel the North to come to terms on giving up its nukes.
Still, Trump also said at one point that he would like to talk to Kim Jong Un. North Korea presents a major foreign policy issue for the next U.S. president. Obama essentially is leaving the issue to his successor. It will be interesting to see how Trump responds. North Korea may force him to him to show his hand early by staging incidents that leave him no choice but to make firm decisions – for war or peace.
Trump has not once mentioned maintaining or augmenting sanctions on North Korea for its serial violations of U.S. law and UN resolutions.
Instead, Mr. Trump has commented he’d be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a hamburger summit, asserting there was a possibility he could “talk him out of those damn nukes.”
But at the same time, he has shown great reluctance to actually engage in the world, most notably in his discussion of alliances and trade policy. He has also tossed off highly-unorthodox approaches, such as working with Vladimir Putin or sitting down to a hamburger with Kim Jong Un. Who can take any of this seriously?
Therefore, the North will refrain from strongly pressuring the U.S., but it will make a strong provocation if there is no change in policy toward North Korea. I, however, believe the North will test the waters before provoking.
Trump, too, repeatedly revealed his willingness to have a one-on-one meeting with Kim Jong Un. He even indicated the possibility of inviting him to Washington.
If the intentions of the two sides meet, then, US-DPRK dialogue might go ahead much faster that we could have expected.
They may remind him that he said he could talk to Kim Jong Un. I happen to think that would be a good idea, ceteris paribus.
3. How might the Trump victory impact Seoul’s relationship with North Korea?
Since Trump pursues policies which prioritize U.S. national interests over an alliance, South Korea can’t help but cope with the North’s nuclear threats with their might rather than rely on the U.S.
As a result, the role of South Korea in the North’s nuclear issues will continue to grow. After a transition period, the North and the South will get back to the negotiating table, and inter-Korean relations could improve or even blossom.
Trump prioritizes national interests first, and consider alliances and allies at the next. International security is the last thing to consider.
South Korea will be under more pressure to share defense spending. And if the U.S. and North Korea hold one-on-one talks in the circumstances, it will defuse tension on the Korean Peninsula but the North and the U.S. will play a pivotal role and the South will lose their footing on the inter-Korean issues.
South Korea’s domestic political crisis is far likelier to affect Seoul’s relationship with Pyongyang than a Trump victory will.
In any event, Mr. Trump himself doesn’t have the slightest idea what he should do about Korea.
He will be learning on the job from a base of zero, and it would take him considerable time to grasp what the situation is.
I think general instability and uncertainty exacerbates regional tensions.
With U.S. extended deterrence in question and reassurance of regional allies in question, Pyongyang has an incentive to challenge the South.
The risk of conflict on the peninsula rises significantly.
In the field of defense, Seoul’s dependency on Washington will certainly diminish.
Seoul is in the immediate need to strengthen its capacity to face against the North. Should the U.S. economy face a downfall during Trump’s term, the chances of the U.S. invasion of North Korea might increase as well.
His victory leads to the overall growth of the uncertainty in many fields.
Much depends on what happens in South Korea. President Park faces overwhelming problems right at her door: that is, in the form of protests in central Seoul and widespread indignation over the scandal surrounding her long-time friend, Choi Sun-sil.
She doesn’t seem able to act decisively on North Korea though her defense, foreign and unification ministers may have to make important decisions. Trump may want to try to come to terms with North Korea, perhaps to consider renewing dialogue, but he also may be influenced adversely by North Korea’s refusal to give up its nukes and by China’s failure to pressure North Korea to do so.
Trump may want to try to come to terms with North Korea, perhaps to consider renewing dialogue, but he also may be influenced adversely by North Korea’s refusal to give up its nukes and by China’s failure to pressure North Korea to do so. If he adopts a tough line, U.S. and South Korean relations could become strained especially if a liberal in favor of reconciliation is in the Blue House. Trump’s trade policies will also come into play. If he follows through on threats to adopt protective tariffs against China and if he opposes free-trade agreements, including the Korea-U.S. FTA, the U.S. and South Korea may face deep problems that will also affect policy toward North Korea.
Doing so would run counter to U.S. treaty commitments with key allies.
Such views have triggered greater fears of abandonment amongst our allies and may embolden opponents China, North Korea, and Russia to greater coercive diplomacy and military adventurism.
What does all of this mean for the Korean peninsula? The answer could be “not much.” Trump is likely to be constrained with respect to the alliance relations once in office, and may even seek to assure Seoul and Tokyo given his prior comments.
No doubt, the new administration will undertake a policy review with respect to North Korea, but it is not likely to be a high priority given the other challenges the new administration will face, such as actually outlining policies with respect to the various foreign policy challenges the country faces.
None of the fundamental constraints on the peninsula have magically changed as a result of Trump being elected.
But there will be a change in the long term. If the South has to take countermeasures against the deterioration of inter-Korean relations, we should prepare and invest more [in the military field], and we should take a risk in this sense.
However, we also consider our upcoming presidential elections. South-North relations will be affected by the next administration.
However, Seoul’s nightmare has always been the direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang, where Seoul is sidelined. If U.S.-DPRK direct talks materialize, then, Seoul would want to consult with President Trump before he makes any moves toward Pyongyang because it is essential for South Korea to speak with one voice with the United States vis-a-vis North Korea.
It will be hard to expect Park Geun-hye administration’s North Korea policy to change overnight just because a new president comes into office in Washington. President Park’s tenure is now coming into its final year, and she is already sufficiently busy with her homework.
On the other hand, if President Park’s successor in Seoul wants to restart the economic cooperation and political dialogue with the North, then, ongoing talks between Washington and Pyongyang is good because they will release much of the domestic burden that the South Korean government has to shoulder when the South wants to reopen its pipeline with the North. In other words, if Trump begins talks with Kim Jong Un, it will have an encouraging effect on the inter-Korean relations.
Here, of course, we must factor in the whole Park Geun-hye crisis. But even without that, a year into Trump’s presidency South Korea too will have a new president. All the main current contenders support some degree of engagement with Pyongyang, alongside sanctions. So overall I see the pendulum swinging towards renewed diplomacy – which again is a good thing in my opinion.
Featured image: NK News edit
Additional reporting: J.H. Ahn, Dagyum Ji, Oliver Hotham, Chad O’Carroll
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 3187 words of this article.