About the Author
View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
For Donald Trump, as the recent imbroglio over Ukraine indicates, foreign policy and national security concerns are of secondary importance to his reelection prospects.
Cutting a de facto deal on U.S. troop deployments with an unsavory dictator like Turkey’s Erdogan in northern Syria demonstrated a flippant attitude toward such a stalwart U.S. ally as the Kurds. If the Kurds could be reduced to a bargaining chip by the world’s self-proclaimed best dealmaker, then why not the even older “blood ally” South Korea?
The President — and his negotiating team — has not hesitated in putting the squeeze on Seoul during the current Special Measures Agreement (SMA) talks on cost-sharing for U.S. troops stationed in Korea.
The U.S. side is demanding almost $5 billion dollars –five times the amount Seoul now pays for the stationing of 28,500 troops on the peninsula, a demand that South Korean civic groups have denounced as “highway robbery.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, during a trip to Asia last month, echoed the Trump talking points by stating, according to a November 19th article in Military Times, that “this is a very strong alliance we have, but Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense.”
The latest round of negotiations in Seoul in November was an unmitigated disaster. The U.S. side walked out of the talks, taking a page from the script of the shoe-pounding uncouth Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev famously screamed at President Eisenhower at a Paris summit in the spring of 1960 before unceremoniously walking out on him — due to fallout over the U-2 spy plane incident.
The fact that American negotiators would choose to copy the tactics of one of the most bombastic members of the “Evil Empire” is yet another indication of the Russification of U.S. foreign policy. This very public bullying tactic, however, does not sit well with the populace of an old American ally which has spent hundreds – if not thousands – of years battling against the bullying of its Great Power neighbors.
President Trump, once his Senate acquittal on impeachment charges is realized – which seems a foregone conclusion with the compliant Republican majority – will turn to his next big deal. That deal involves selling an increasingly skeptical American public on the idea of reelecting him in November 2020.
His popularity level for three years, however, has hovered steadily between the high thirty and low forty percent levels, unprecedented for any American president since before the Second World War. These numbers are not nearly enough to gain even an Electoral College majority, not to mention the popular vote.
So Trump will need to pull a rabbit out of his hat once impeachment is over. There is a possibility that that rabbit could be the guy he “loves” – none other than Kim Jong Un.
Trump must be aware that one of the flashiest reelection maneuvers for an incumbent president involves a high-profile diplomatic breakthrough. Nixon’s famous February 1972 visit to China helped build momentum for an unprecedented reelection victory where he carried forty-nine of fifty states.
So where is Trump’s China? The obvious answer seems to be that all roads lead to Pyongyang.
Moscow, Beijing, and Havana have all already been done by his predecessors. Tehran is out of the question, given the Trump administration’s pullout of the Iran nuclear deal, close ally Israel’s concerns, and Trump’s repeated tough and uncompromising rhetoric.
But President Trump has demonstrated remarkable flexibility with his best bro, Kim Jong Un – even going to the DMZ to meet him this past summer when nuclear talks with Pyongyang remained at a standstill.
“Trump Goes to Pyongyang” is the kind of eye-catching headline that the media-obsessed President relishes. Say in April, when the azaleas are in bloom on the Korean peninsula and the Democratic candidates are engaged in a series of competitive primaries back home.
Trump will need to pull a rabbit out of his hat once impeachment is over. There is a possibility that that rabbit could be the guy he “loves” – none other than Kim Jong Un
A number of obstacles, however, could still upset the applecart. North Korea keeps threatening dire consequences if there is no diplomatic breakthrough by its self-imposed December 31st deadline.
And Trump’s revival of his “Rocket Man” label for Kim Jong Un has reportedly raised hackles in Pyongyang. According to a December 5th report by CNN: “A senior member of the North Korean government has again described Donald Trump as a ‘dotard’ after the US President revived the war words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by calling him ‘Rocket Man.’… Speaking of the North Korean leader at the NATO summit in London on Tuesday, Trump said: ‘He really likes sending rockets up, doesn’t he? That’s why I call him Rocket Man.’ Trump added that he and Kim have ‘a good relationship.’”
Pyongyang, however, might wish to be patient and allow the impeachment drama in Washington to play itself out before taking any provocative measures. A sweet deal could be waiting in the spring along with the azaleas as a post-impeached Trump tries to rebuild an image-damaged reelection campaign.
Politics makes strange bedfellows. For Trump, the ultimate prize is being reelected and not going down in history as a one-term “loser” president. For Kim, it would be taking his cue from Turkey’s Erdogan and putting U.S. troop withdrawals from South Korea on the table for the transactional Trump.
This could gain traction as the U.S. President has demonstrated for three years a consistent disdain for “deadbeat allies” who he has told his nativist followers are ripping America off.
The odd couple could then sign a historic communique to end their Pyongyang Summit – with Kim having the added advantage of publicizing to his captive population that even the barbarian American king must come to pay homage to the Supreme Commander.
The one wrench in this scenario is the increasing rage of many in the Korean-American community over what they perceive as Trump’s bullying of their ancestral home, South Korea. They could voice that anger next year by saying it with votes.
While the Republican National Committee is well aware that Korean-American voters in such Democratic strongholds as California, New York, and New Jersey are not to be feared, what about swing states like Virginia? And what of increasingly competitive states like Georgia and Texas, both of which have sizable Korean-American communities?
One of the great ironies then would be if Trump echoed Nixon by stating “I will go to North Korea” only to have his reelection hopes dashed when Korean-American voters tip the balance against his Electoral College victory in places like Virginia, Georgia, and Texas.
Then President Trump would inherit not only the diplomatic legacy of Nixon going to China but also the legacy of being driven from office after having been threatened with impeachment. And Kim Jong Un would live another day to seek negotiations with a new, incoming Democratic administration.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: The White House