If President Trump is re-elected, we are more likely to see his first-term North Korea policy continue rather than substantially change. He will likely seek to meet with Kim Jong-un again as he wants to leave a historical legacy as a U.S. President who denuclearized a nuclear rogue state. However, there are important factors that have changed or been under development with regard to North Korea, which the policy community should take into account as it evaluates and updates Trump’s North Korea policy during his second term.
First, it is possible that a second-term President Trump could take bold actions with North Korea as he won’t have any re-election political pressures. His second term presidency could offer more room to maneuver in negotiations. This could include the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea, an end-of-war declaration, and sanctions relief, as long as North Korea is not going to test-launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with multiple warheads or other advanced strategic weapons that could be a direct threat to U.S. national security.
Second, how U.S.-China relations develop during his second term will likely be a significant factor for his North Korea policy. In order to achieve the U.S. goal of denuclearization, China’s role is crucial. China’s policy was broadly supportive of U.S. policy of maximum pressure and engagement when the negotiations between America and North Korea were moving forward, as nuclear proliferation in North Korea is a direct threat to China’s security and stability. Given the intensifying U.S.-China tensions since the coronavirus crisis, however, it is likely that China will change its approach in terms of U.S. denuclearization efforts and pursue its own North Korea diplomacy to increase Chinese influence. China could ramp up its public narrative to condemn U.S. unilateral sanctions on Chinese enterprises and individuals and to help ease United Nations sanctions on North Korea with Russia. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Lanting Forum on September 28, 2020 that “[China] will remain deeply involved in the settlement of regional and international hotspot issues such as the Korean nuclear issue…”
Third, the current status of the development of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will likely be another key factor to evaluate and update Trump’s first term North Korea policy. The UN Security Council’s Report of the Panel of Experts, released on August 28, 2020, states that “[DPRK] has probably developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit into the warheads of its ballistic missiles” and that “DPRK may seek to further develop miniaturization in order to allow the incorporation of technological improvements, such as penetration aid packages, or, potentially, to develop multiple-warhead systems.” While there still remains the question of accuracy and reliability of the re-entry vehicles, some experts assess that North Korean intercontinental missiles can now reach anywhere in the United Staes. In addition, the UN Report also concludes that North Korea has continued to violate the UN Security Council resolutions and evaded sanctions through illicit maritime trade of petroleum and coal, as well as through targeted cyber attacks. If re-elected, a second Trump administration should update its North Korea policy to reflect the changes in terms of its nuclear capabilities and sanctions effectiveness that took place during his first term.
Dr. Miyeon Oh is a Director and Senior Fellow of the Asia Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.