A shakeup in U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula is possible if Donald Trump gets a second term as U.S. president.
The changes would not necessarily serve US interests well.
Beyond a general aversion to internationalism, Trump’s foreign policy thinking is based on random inclinations rather than sound strategic principles.
Trump’s top aides, who primarily advocated for a U.S. foreign policy that fell within the parameters of mainstream postwar US grand strategy, might have restrained some of his foreign policy preferences.
If he won a second term, however, Donald Trump would likely think himself experienced enough to rely more heavily on his own views and to surround himself with sycophants.
One of Trump’s inclinations is admiration of dictators. The relationship between Trump and North Korean paramount leader Kim Jong-un has had ups and downs, but Trump basically respects Kim. While President George W. Bush said of Kim Jong-un’s father “I loathe Kim Jong-il,” Trump has said he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Trump praised Kim as a “smart cookie” because “At a very young age, he was able to assume power.” Trump is seemingly ignorant of the role Kim family heredity succession plays in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) leadership system.
Another Trump inclination is disdain for US alliances. Trump has specifically criticized the Republic of Korea (ROK) as a free-rider. Trump said during his presidential campaign that South Korea should deploy its own nuclear weapons. As president, he reportedly considered withdrawing all U.S. troops from South Korea. Trump also called US-ROK military exercises on the Peninsula “very provocative,” echoing Pyongyang’s position. He might have been working to sabotage the alliance when the clock ran out on his first term. Trump wanted to increase Seoul’s host nation support payments for US bases by 400 percent, which likely would have been intolerable for Seoul.
Trump clearly aspires to getting credit for a breakthrough on the Peninsula. After meeting with Kim in Singapore in 2018, Trump tweeted the absurd claim “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He has repeatedly boasted that his policy toward North Korea prevented a “nuclear holocaust.” Trump promoted himself as a Nobel Prize candidate for his North Korea diplomacy, saying “everyone thinks” he deserves it.
Taken together, these elements suggest Trump as president could seek to revive his personal connection with Kim Jong-un and resume his pursuit of a Nobel Prize and a reason to claim that he is a better president than Barrack Obama and Joe Biden were.
Neither South Korea’s security nor the long-term value that the US-ROK alliance holds in US grand strategy would be important considerations as Trump sought a deal with North Korea that he could sell to his US audience as a success from the standpoint of parochial American interests.
Trump’s agenda and the potential openings for Pyongyang to pursue its own interests, are by now clear to the North Koreans.
The outcomes of restarted US-DPRK diplomacy under Trump II could range from a fake success, such as the premature claim of victory after the Singapore meeting, to a significant geopolitical realignment in Northeast Asia.
About the Author and Their Expertise
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He specializes in Asia-Pacific international security issues.
Image Credit: White House Flickr.