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 reelected, I am skeptical about whether Donald Trump will pursue military action against North Korea unless all hopes of reengagement are extinguished. If Kim Jong-un continues to isolate himself from U.S. leadership, Trump may resort to more drastic measures for rapprochement including the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and an indefinite freeze of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
In fact, a former chief of staff to President Trump suggested that if reelected, the United States and North Korea will strike a deal with unspecified “incremental concession” towards denuclearization. North Korea’s harsh critique of the “Libya Model” for denuclearization suggests that the rogue state will voluntarily abandon its nuclear ambitions only if the leadership feels immutably confident in its ability to maintain sovereignty without nuclear weapons. Alternatively, Pyongyang may give them up if convinced that pursuing nuclear weapons will undoubtedly threaten its survival.
Despite the U.S. Department of Treasury imposing a robust set of economic sanctions to disincentivize nuclear proliferation efforts and bring Kim Jong-un back to the negotiation table, North Korea continues to evade sanctions with unprecedented success. Additionally, Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s younger sister and suspected orchestrator of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office detonation, issued an official statement declaring future summits “useless” unless U.S. leadership makes “major changes” on its stance towards North Korea.
If reelected, there are three possible versions of the supposed Trump deal which includes “incremental concession” for denuclearization and “major changes” for U.S. stance on North Korea:
1. Trump indefinitely terminates or drastically reduces all joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
2. Trump removes the U.S. military presence from the Korean Peninsula.
3. Trump provides humanitarian anti-coronavirus aid to restart negotiations.
If North Korea uncharacteristically keeps its word to halt nuclear and ballistic weapons testing, the third option is most plausible considering the current global pandemic. The first two options would tarnish not only U.S.-South Korean relations, but also U.S.-Japan relations and regional security. Although not completely free of domestic opposition, the majority of South Koreans agree that the presence of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula is necessary for protection against North Korea. When the Trump Administration unilaterally announced its consideration to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea due to cost-sharing disagreements, South Korean leadership and citizenry were outraged and, assumingly, frightened.
Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office next year, North Korea will continue its efforts to decouple the U.S.-South Korean alliance. If reelected, the concessions included in Trump’s supposedly planned deal should not include the removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula as it would play right into the hands of Kim Jong-un. A weakened U.S.-ROK alliance allows ample opportunity for Kim to unilaterally take advantage of a South Korean President overly optimistic about co-habitation and an American President overly zealous about solving the North Korean problem single-handedly.
Jason Bartlett is a Research Assistant for the Energy, Economics, and Security (EES) Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He tweets @jasonabartlett.