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.
The title’s question is revealing. It is not something previously asked of prospective second term presidents. Usually we have a proven track record. If we do not know, it is not likely our allies know.
We do know a stated position. According to promiseskept.com, President Trump is putting maximum pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. “Final, fully verified denuclearization” (FFVD) is the stated goal. It is designed to be different than the last administration’s “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.
FFVD is not much discussed lately, as North Korea has been quiet. As with previous administrations, imposing sanctions, ranging from “smart” to “maximum pressure,” are options of last resort, more effective politically than objectively. Sanctions emerge at the end of a familiar sequence. North Korean provocations beget martial statements and activities such as “fire and fury.” These give way in turn to negotiations and agreements, followed by North Korean equivocation and cheating. Outrage follows and we impose sanctions, always with the promise that this time they will work. We describe our sanctions in ferocious terms like “crippling” and “maximum pressure.” Yet North Korea soldiers on. The cycle repeats with every new U.S. administration.
We may start the cycle again on or about the October 10th. This year’s date marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Central Organizing Committee of the Communist Party of North Korea. While our sanctions have had some effect, crippling the North Korean economy—formal or informal—is not among them. Weapons development programs were not much bothered either. North Korean parade practices indicate a star role for ballistic missiles and launchers in the anniversary celebration.
The initiative lies with Kim Jong-un. He may be satisfied with a parade sure to be envied in the White House. Parading new weapons explicitly challenges the power of our sanctions. Kim may choose to be more provocative and launch missiles. Short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan will gain attention, but we stated that short-range missiles don’t bother us much. A long-range missile launch, potentially demonstrating a new mastery of reentry capability, would rubbish Kim’s purported withdrawal of this threat. We know Kim has many options. Guessing his views, or trying to discern his internal challenges, is nearly impossible. We do know that recent changes to roles and responsibilities within his government were made. The significance of those adjustments has yet to emerge. But Kim will be eager to demonstrate his continued power.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump questions the value of our forward presence in South Korea and Japan. He made demands for a four-fold increase of host nation support payments a significant part—even the core—of our alliance policy. Therefore, provocations limited to South Korea or Japan will be unlikely to generate much of a U.S. response.
Another “known” component is our personalized policy. Kim will, at a minimum, seek direct contact and meetings with the U.S. president. Public praise will be demanded. Mr. Trump will be sure to protect his role as the only one able to fix a crisis with North Korea. Any step back from this summitry will be a step down in Kim’s perceived power, leading to potentially deadly consequences for Kim from ambitious members of his inner circle. This is a failing of autocratic governments everywhere: leaders exit only via coup or coffin.
The North Korean policy of a newly empowered second-term President Trump must be one that keeps him at the forefront. It is likely to include secretive bi-lateral meetings as before, excluding our allies, but with much publicity and posturing. More unforced concessions are likely on our part. Missile and warhead development by North Korea, and their massive conventional firepower in the Kaesong Heights overlooking Seoul, will continue. The danger, of course, is an unexpected turn that tips us into active conflict. Gavrilo Princip wanted to kill an archduke, not start World War I, but he put the match to the dry tinder.
Wallace C. Gregson, Jr. is Senior Director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest (CFTNI) and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. He retired from the United States Marine Corps at the rank of Lieutenant General and previously served as Commander of Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, Commanding General of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, and Commander of Marine Corps Bases, Pacific.