Donald Trump’s Second-Term North Korea Strategy: A Deal or Ignore Kim?

 In North Korea, FVEY, P5

Editor’s Note: The fol­low­ing is part of a new sym­po­sium here in Korea Watch that will ana­lyze poten­tial U.S. policy options towards North Korea should Donald Trump win reelec­tion. Check back soon for more con­tri­bu­tions in the coming days. 

If Donald Trump is re-elect­ed as pres­i­dent of the United States, then the pos­si­bil­i­ties for his Korea policy are wide open. But if Joe Biden is elected as president, then Americans can expect him to take a fairly estab­lish­men­tar­i­an approach. Biden has already sig­naled a traditional hawkishness on North Korea—alliance reas­sur­ance, no sum­mits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, no Trumpian claims to a unique per­son­al rela­tion­ship with Kim, and so on. With Trump, as so often, unpre­dictabil­i­ty reigns. There are two broad pos­si­bil­i­ties: 

1. Trump goes for a deal with his “friend” Kim Jong-un. 

Trump and his team have hinted here and there this year that a re-elect­ed Trump would strike a deal with Kim. The logic here is that Trump will be free from re-elec­tion pres­sures and can express him­self more fully in a second term. Also, Trump wants a deal because he deeply craves the expect­ed adu­la­tion, includ­ing a Nobel Prize Peace per­haps, and cares little for the Korean peninsula. So he would com­fort­ably sign even a bal­ance-neg­a­tive deal for the excit­ing imagery of a break­through on a long-stand­ing prob­lem. 

A corol­lary of this approach is that Trump is a nation­al­ist retrencher at heart. He would gladly trade away U.S. Forces Korea for a deal with Kim, and if the South Koreans and U.S. for­eign policy com­mu­ni­ty do not like it, well, who cares? Trump does not listen to for­eign­ers or the American Deep State; he defends America First.

This describes a max­i­mal­ist Trumpism, where Trump gen­uine­ly fol­lows through on his trans­ac­tion­al for­eign policy impuls­es to aban­don U.S. allies as trou­ble­some free-riders and cut deals with dic­ta­tors whom he some­what admires for their unchecked author­i­ty. 

The prob­lem with this sce­nario is that Trump would run into a wall of bureau­crat­ic resis­tance in Washington, DC. Washington strong­ly sup­ports the U.S. alliance net­work. A bad deal with North Korea, par­tic­u­lar­ly one which aban­doned South Korea, would spark mas­sive resis­tance in Congress, the Defense Department and State Department, and the wider for­eign policy com­mu­ni­ty of think-tanks and ana­lysts focused on East Asia. The crit­i­cism on U.S. op-ed pages would be crush­ing, just as it was through­out 2018 and 2019 when Trump met Kim the first time. Then Trump’s efforts were widely derid­ed as photo-op diplo­ma­cy, and in Hanoi in 2019, Trump admitted that he abjured a deal in part because of the domes­tic crit­i­cism he would face.

It is worth recall­ing that President Jimmy Carter also tried to pull USFK out of South Korea and col­lid­ed with wide­spread resis­tance. In time, he simply gave up and only 3,000 US sol­diers were with­drawn. A Trump deal with North Korea — likely bur­dened by the wide­spread per­cep­tion that it is a bad deal struck solely out of Trump’s lust for pub­lic­i­ty and a Nobel — would be met with the same fierce resis­tance. Trump, noto­ri­ous for his lazi­ness and inabil­i­ty to stay focused on issues over the long term, likely does not have the focus and self-dis­ci­pline to fight a pro­tract­ed battle with the rest of Washington.

2. Trump simply ignores Korea as not worth the trou­ble.

Given that Trump prob­a­bly does not want to fight alone against the entire Washington estab­lish­ment over a mid-size issue like Korea—if only because it is too much work for some­one who would rather watch TV or surf Twitter. It is likely that he will simply drop the issue as he already has for the last year or so.

Perhaps he will have a summit with Kim, but at this point, every­one knows that those are not mean­ing­ful. They do not cap a long process of bureau­crat­ic work with a treaty—as, for exam­ple, the Camp David Accords of 1978 did. Instead, Trump-Kim sum­mits are better described as made-for-TV visits. So if Trump meets Kim again in 2021, with­out the req­ui­site prepa­ra­tion yet again (which is likely), then that summit will be irrel­e­vant despite the inevitable hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing TV cov­er­age. 

In the end, noth­ing much will happen here, just as noth­ing much hap­pened over the past four years. For all of Trump’s threats and then blan­d­ish­ments toward North Korea, the empir­i­cal sit­u­a­tion on the ground in Korea is unchanged, as is U.S. force struc­ture in the region (and that of the two Koreas too). Maybe Trump will actu­al­ly put some teeth on his Korean sound and fury, but so far, it has sig­ni­fied noth­ing, and it seems safe to pre­dict that in the future too. 

Robert E. Kelly is a pro­fes­sor of inter­na­tion­al rela­tions in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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