There is an air of expectancy hovering over Pyongyang after Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. North Korea’s biggest goal has always been to be accepted as a nuclear weapon state, though the regime’s ambition goes directly against the official objective of the United States and South Korea: “the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and program. With the Obama administration nearing its end, some in the administration, though unofficially, have suggested that Washington needs to seek “a nuclear freeze,” meaning the U.S. should carry out negotiations aimed at freezing the communist regime’s nuclear weapons development and proliferation while accepting its existing nuclear weapons.
Against this backdrop, Kim Jong-un and his cronies may have seen an opportunity in Trump’s election to resolve the differences between Washington and Pyongyang. Indeed, it is no surprise that the North, which has declared itself as a nuclear power in its constitution and repeatedly pledged to maintain its nuclear capability at all costs, is eager to find out how flexible the president-elect will be in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue.
The North Korean regime has displayed extreme interest in some of the comments Trump made during his campaign. For example, he doubled down on his criticism of U.S. defense ties with NATO, Japan, and South Korea. Trump also stated that he would be willing to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea unless Seoul pays more for the costs of sustaining combined defense. In addition, he blasted the free trade pact with South Korea as a job-killing deal. Such remarks might have been quite encouraging for Pyongyang. Since the North failed to unify the peninsula under Kim Il-sung’s communist rule due to the U.S. military’s engagement in the Korean war, Pyongyang has continuously pursued the dismantlement of the ROK-U.S. alliance and a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Seoul. Therefore, Pyongyang is keen to interpret the president-elect’s comments as a message of the weakening or even end of the alliance.
In addition, the Kim Jong-un regime would want to interpret Trump’s comment about being prepared to meet the leader of the DPRK over hamburgers as a signal of the president-elect’s eagerness to engage in direct dialogue with Pyongyang while ostracizing Seoul. Such comments led to the state-run DPRK Today endorsing Trump as a “wise leader politician and a prescient presidential candidate.” Perhaps this is also why the North has kept quiet about Trump while abstaining from carrying out further nuclear and missile testing.
However, Trump’s moves since the election show it is unlikely that the incoming administration will satisfy the Kim regime’s unrealistic expectations. First of all, the North should keep in mind that the president-elect has also made hardline comments on Pyongyang during his campaign. For example, he said that “the North is an insane regime which the U.S. cannot associate with” and the “Pyongyang’s nuclear provocation will be penalized.” In other words, the DPRK should not pick and choose messages they like from the president-elect’s remarks.
Second, the United States has a 240-year history of democracy. The system will not allow presidential candidates’ spontaneous and outrageous campaign rhetoric to become actual policy, as all important policies are vetted against a complex verification and confirmation process. In fact, President Richard Nixon and President Jimmy Carter both pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea during or after their campaigns, yet they both failed to push through that change because of the opposition from both Washington and Seoul.
Third, the most important foreign affairs goal of the United States as the world’s superpower has always been and will continue to be sustaining its global hegemony. This goal is not something a single administration can abruptly give up on. The U.S. has built up its supremacy based on its military and moral power, and its alliance policy is a vital means of backing the country’s power and status. Therefore, the 60-year ROK-U.S. alliance will remain strong under the Trump administration, though the president-elect may make some changes to minor issues including increasing Seoul’s share of the joint defense costs. Indeed, soon after Trump became the president-elect, he spoke to President Park Geun-hye of South Korea on the phone and had a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, highlighting the significance of the U.S. alliances with Seoul and Tokyo.
In this vein, the president-elect has already demonstrated his bent as a strategist in building his Cabinet. Trump named ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has a history of close business ties to Russia, as his secretary of state, and all of his picks for security positions are hardliners including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a former commander of U.S. Central Command; Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly, a former commander of the U.S. Southern Command; National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; and CIA director Mike Pompeo. The president-elect’s cabinet appointments clearly show his strategic plan to improve Washington’s relations with Moscow while keeping Beijing in check. Now that the Trump administration’s intention to hold China in check is getting clearer, there is absolutely no reason for the president-elect to treat Pyongyang, Beijing’s nuclear-obsessed ally, with favor.
Under these circumstances, if the North believes it will be able to negotiate with the Trump administration and be accepted as a nuclear power, it will be disappointed. Likewise, if Pyongyang hopes for the dismantlement of the ROK-U.S. alliance as the United States turns inward, it will be let down.
What is more plausible based on the current situation is the opposite: the Trump administration may take stronger steps to respond to the North’s nuclear weapon development. For instance, under the new administration, an argument for carrying out preemptive attacks on Pyongyang may reemerge, and the administration may increase its pressure on the front of human rights in the North, arguing for the referral of North Korean authorities to the International Criminal Court.
Kim Tae-woo is Professor at Konyang University and formerly President of the Korea Institute for National Unification.