As the dust settles after a tumultuous U.S. presidential campaign, two unpredictable futures for both the U.S. and South Korea leave military experts concerned about the stability of defense against North Korea.
Shortly after Republican candidate Donald Trump was declared early Wednesday the surprise victor of a political campaign rife with extreme proposals, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for her country to waste no time in getting on the same page with the U.S. in handling nuclear threats from Pyongyang.
The South Korean government and experts are concerned about time running out on chances to halt North Korea’s nuclear development. Pyongyang has sparked regional agitation over its rapid development of miniaturized nuclear warheads, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and nuclear-tipped long-range missiles capable of reaching the western United States. Unfazed by international sanctions against it, North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test in September; by 2020, it could possess up to 100 nuclear weapons that can reach anywhere in the United States.
According to one poll, some 80 percent of South Koreans had supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to claim the victory — compared to 3 percent for Trump — in part to ensure the continuation of a healthy status quo in diplomatic and military ties with its ally. As a pioneer of the United States’ “pivot to Asia” strategy, Clinton would have all but guaranteed a stronger front against Chinese economic and military pressures across the continent, and pundits predicted an even more hardline stance against North Korea’s nuclearization.
But all bets were off Wednesday as Trump, vowing to overthrow establishment politics, claimed the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency (the current count has him at 279 to Clinton’s 228, with votes still being counted in several states). Pundits in South Korea are concerned about how the 70-year-old Republican will handle the peninsula given his isolationist defense and trade proposals on the stump.
Even North Korea recognizes the turbulent conditions, with its leader Kim Jong-un telling his troops this week to stay ready for combat in both waking and sleeping hours. At a time when the North Korean threat is growing ever more serious, experts fear that Trump will have his hands full with domestic issues, a budding relationship with Russia, and existing threats from China and the Middle East, which could shove the Pyongyang problem further down the priority list.
“The U.S. military and diplomatic corps have restricted resources, but the Obama administration is vying for a world order with limited resources,” says Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum. “So when resources are limited, you have to focus. ISIS [Islamic State] is No. 1. Next is China, and dealing with Russia is third. North Korea looks like it’s on the priority list, but it’s not on the top of it.”
Trump appears to have a desire to shed responsibilities in the region. He has proposed that China play a greater role in controlling the North Korean threat. And given his claims that Chinese imports to the U.S. have led to a downfall in American manufacturing jobs, it is questionable whether Trump’s Washington will cooperate with Beijing over Pyongyang, or move assertively to contain its Asian economic and military rival.
Further, Trump has argued that the U.S. share of military spending on the Korean Peninsula is too high. Seoul and Washington have a deal until 2018 to roughly split the cost of supporting the 28,500 U.S. troops in the South. Trump, however, has suggested that the South shoulder more of the burden to protect its own land, even threatening to withdraw troops over it — a situation that experts fear threatens the alliance.
At the same time, Trump’s very unpredictability may be a silver lining in handling the erratic North when an era of status quo has reached its limit. Tighter sanctions have not deterred Pyongyang from its nuclear focus, so perhaps Trump, a businessman with a penchant for deal-brokering, will find a way to create dialogue and a negotiation-friendly atmosphere with a goal of step-by-step denuclearization, experts say.
In a departure from the Obama administration’s insistence that disarmament must be on the agenda in order to enter into dialogue with North Korea, Trump has said that he would be open to speaking with Kim Jong-un, the same dictatorial leader he has called a “maniac.” North Korea could be warm to the idea, having praised Trump as a “wise politician” who could help unify the Peninsula.
“The policy of pressure during the Bush administration or the strategic patience policy under Obama have not been so fruitful in terms of curbing the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles by North Korea,” says Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul. “There’s a growing consensus in Washington that something else will be needed.”
But Trump is not the only wild card in the future of North Korea policy. Domestic turmoil in the South Korean government, where Park Geun-hye’s influence scandal has the public and opposition calling for her resignation, could be an even bigger question mark over U.S. and South Korean joint efforts on North Korea.
The scandal, implicating Park’s longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil of using her power over the president to control state affairs and fill slush funds for personal use, has destroyed political legitimacy and public support for Park’s conservative Saenuri Party. Rendered powerless yet signaling she would not resign, Park has urged her crippled government to keep the wheels turning in order to prevent economic and defense-related turmoil.
The opposition is widely expected to take over the presidential Blue House in 2017 — or sooner, as parliament will pick a prime minister to lead affairs as the disgraced Park steps aside for the rest of her term. But defense experts are concerned that a liberal takeover could pose a threat to conservative-brokered defense commitments — namely Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment, the transfer of wartime operational control, and a trilateral military information-sharing agreement with the United States and Japan.
South Korea’s progressives oppose deploying the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense technology, may push to hasten OPCON transfer to regain the South’s military sovereignty, and are hesitant to enter into military cooperation with Korea’s former colonizer Japan.
“I think South Korea should have a positive role and support the U.S. strategy, but domestic politics may not allow that support,” says Park Hwee-rhak at Kookmin University. “If the next prime minister asks for a review of relevance of the decision to deploy THAAD, we will go through lots of turmoil.”
The world will be watching to see whether Trump follows through on his questioning of the U.S. commitment to alliance agreements with South Korea, Japan, and NATO, as the majority of Americans — including 60 percent of Trump supporters — back the alliances.
Regardless of who sits in the presidential White House or Blue House, Bong emphasizes that the longevity of the U.S.-South Korea security partnership proves that it is very solid.
“The U.S.-Korea security partnership has a basic latitude that will not be derailed because of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election,” Bong says. “The basic commitment of the U.S. to its allies including South Korea and Japan seem to be on a very solid foundation.”