On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump became the most powerful man on the planet as he was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. Now that the ultimate political outsider, who won the election with his “America First” slogan and provocative campaign rhetoric, is settling into the White House, all eyes are on Washington, DC. While the international community is mostly interested in the Trump administration’s global strategy and trade policy, South Korea, which is grappling with North Korea’s nuclear threats in cooperation with its ally, the United States, is paying keen attention to not only the new administration’ trade policy but also its alliance and Asia policies. In the same vein, North Korea, which has advanced its nuclear capability thanks to China’s willingness to turn a blind eye, will also be cautiously monitoring the United States’ policy toward China and the North’s nuclear weapon development.
Considering his remarks during and after the election, Trump is likely to keep China in check by enhancing U.S.-Russia relations, pursuing a protectionist trade policy rooted in economic nationalism, and conducting a pragmatic alliance policy. Indeed, he announced his “America First” pledges — improving the job market, rebuilding the military, and strengthening border security — at a pre-inauguration campaign donor dinner on January 19. The next day on the National Mall, where his supporters wearing red “Make America Great Again” red hats gathered for his swearing-in ceremony, Trump again stayed true to his slogan. Trump said the words “America” and “American” 34 times in his 16-minute inauguration address and highlighted the importance of his “America First” trade and foreign policy, including a military buildup and the maintenance and expansion of alliances. His speech, undoubtedly, stretched the nerves of countries (like China) which have been accused of taking advantage of the United States through trade agreements.
While the entire world is on the alert for potential changes from the Trump administration, Washington’s strategy toward the Korean peninsula is expected to remain largely unchanged. If anything, the onset of the Trump era has alluded to a much more aggressive tone toward Pyongyang.
Most of all, it is important to note that the new administration has shown an unyielding stance on maintaining and advancing the Korea-U.S. alliance. For example, President Trump, immediately after his election victory on November 10, 2016, told South Korean President Park Geun-hye over the phone, “We are with you all the way, and we will not waver.” On November 18, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security advisor and a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a South Korean delegation in Washington (led by Cho Tae-yong, deputy national security advisor) that the Korea-U.S. alliance is a vital partnership that should be further strengthened. Flynn also met with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin, who visited Washington on January 10, shortly before President Trump’s inauguration, and likened the U.S. alliance with South Korea to a “sticky rice cake,” which is often used as a metaphor for an inseparable bond in Korean culture. By doing so, Flynn emphasized the significance of the Korea-U.S. cooperation in dealing with the North Korea nuclear issue.
That said, President Trump may pursue new spending negotiations with South Korea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Japan, and Saudi Arabia since he has repeatedly called attention to so-called “free-rider allies” and stressed the importance of fairly sharing defense costs with the U.S. allies. However, Seoul’s military experts believe that they can resolve potential conflicts with Washington through security diplomacy and providing factual information. For instance, Seoul’s defense budget for 2017 is 40.3347 trillion won (approximately $35 billion), the 10th largest in the world. And, in 2016, the South paid 940 billion won (roughly $820 million) under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), covering almost half of the costs needed for stationing U.S. troops in South Korea. Last year, South Korea’s defense burden-sharing under SMA accounted for 0.068 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), higher than Japan’s 0.064 percent and Germany’s 0.016 percent. In addition, Korean men in uniform have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their American brothers, in Vietnam where 5,000 Korean soldiers lost their lives, the Persian Gulf, and most recently Afghanistan. Today, South Korean troops are actively participating in United Nations peacekeeping operations as well.
Even as it upholds the alliance with Seoul, the Trump administration is expected to take a stronger stance against Pyongyang’s nuclear development. Since Trump has sternly criticized Obama’s “strategic patience” policy as a recipe for non-action, he is likely to actively look for a breakthrough rather than passively observing the thorny issue. Pyongyang obviously is desperate to be accepted as a nuclear state and strike a peace treaty with Washington, but that is merely a pipe dream. The United States has been, is, and always will be committed to achieving its goal of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID)” of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and program. Washington is also clearly aware that Pyongyang’s intention behind proposing a peace treaty is to dismantle the Korea-U.S. alliance and withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea.
Under these circumstances, if the North continues to hone its nuclear capability, the Trump administration will have to consider taking stronger counter-measures such as strengthening sanctions against the communist regime, conducting preemptive strikes, or pushing for regime change in the DPRK. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in his New Year’s address on January 1, vowed to keep advancing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capability and make an all-out effort to fight against UN sanctions. However, such an aggressive stance would inevitably lead to a clash between the North and the rest of the world, adding stronger international sanctions and further isolating the regime from the international community.
The first moment of U.S.-North Korea confrontation under Trump may come earlier than expected. Recently, the North has shown signs of readying itself to launch ballistic missiles. There are both pros and cons to such a provocation for Pyongyang. On one hand, the North may not want to have a head-on collision with the new Trump administration so early on. Pyongyang would also be reluctant to give the South legitimate reasons for deploying the THAAD missile defense system, as it wants to heighten tensions between Seoul and Beijing over the issue. On the other hand, Pyongyang may want to make a statement and get the world’s attention by conducting nuclear tests or missile launches shortly after the inauguration of the United States’ new president, as it has done many times in the past.
The decision is now in Kim Jong-un’s hands. Whatever his choice may be, he must keep in mind that his current strategy, which pours the poverty-stricken nation’s scarce resources into nuclear development, thereby bringing about more sanctions and further isolating the regime from the rest of the world, is self-destructive and will ultimately threaten the very existence of his regime.
Kim Tae-woo is a professor at Konyang University and former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification.