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 reelected to a second term in November, his options for a successful strategy towards North Korea will increase. Less concerned about how various constituencies might respond at the ballot box to his policy ideas, Trump will be free to pursue policies that have the best chance for success. That’s good news for American security and peace on the Korean peninsula.
Before laying out the diplomatic way forwards, however, it is important to point out two fundamental truths that won’t change regardless of what Trump does or doesn’t do in a second term: 1) America’s overwhelming nuclear and conventional military advantage ensures North Korea will remain deterred from launching attacks against our country or forces, and 2) trying to demand North Korea fully denuclearize up-front would virtually guarantee diplomatic failure and make peace impossible.
Owing to point number one above, we don’t need a deal with North Korea to ensure our national security. Trump could reduce even the risk of war, however, by pursuing peace with North Korea and facilitating reconciliation between Pyongyang and Seoul. There are three comparatively low-cost policies Trump could adopt that would result in meaningful improvements in the security for both South Korea and the United States.
First, Washington and Pyongyang could establish diplomatic liaison offices between the two countries. In early 2019, just ahead of the scheduled summit in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, there was hope in many quarters that the meeting would further the peace process started in 2018’s Singapore summit.
Senior U.S. State Department officials told CNN that the White House was giving serious consideration to exchanging diplomatic officers between the two countries. The Hanoi summit ended in disaster, however, and no agreement of any kind was made. Though a diplomatic stalemate ensued, Trump could resurrect the possibility of establishing liaison offices as a means of taking additional steps towards peace. Establishing formal lines of communication opens the possibility for increased dialogue on many fronts.
Second, Trump could support the signing of an end-of-war declaration. In a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae In advocated such action. The path to peace, Moon told his fellow delegates, begins with formally ending the 1953 Korean War. “The end-of-war declaration will, indeed, open the door to complete denuclearization,” Moon said, leading to a “permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."
Third, the president could strengthen Moon’s hand in improving intra-Korean economic projects by agreeing to targeted and limited sanctions relief. No one in the United States knows what motivates North Koreans better than the South Korean president, and empowering him to make specific and limited deals with Kim could contribute meaningfully towards the establishment of peace.
The complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is at least theoretically possible. Under the best-case scenario, however, that won’t come for many years into the future. Yet to even have a chance to accomplish that goal, it is necessary to take a step-by-step approach, building mutual trust and confidence along the way. Trump can produce a great start towards peace by taking these three steps.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.