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The Peninsula

Pyongyang’s Pick: Why North Korea Endorses U.S. Presidential Candidates

Published August 15, 2016
Author: Kyle Ferrier
Category: North Korea

By Kyle Ferrier

Earlier this year North Korea made headlines when a state-run tourism website endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump only a few weeks after the billionaire stated he would speak with Kim Jong-un. The piece featured in the state tourism website DPRK Today praised Trump as “wise” and “far-sighted,” directly referencing his openness to remove U.S. troops from South Korea, stay out of another possible civil war on the Peninsula, and hold talks with Kim Jong-un. While the article might provide some insight into what the regime is looking to get out of a new U.S. president, North Korea’s unpredictable behavior and a corresponding proclivity for hollow statements make any conclusions drawn from this piece alone tenuous at best. Yet, this is not the only time in recent history that Pyongyang has chimed in on U.S. presidential elections. Placing North Korea’s support for Trump alongside endorsements in recent election years, as well as when one is conspicuously missing, suggests the trigger for an endorsement is the prospect for direct bilateral talks.

2004: Kerry vs. Bush

George W. Bush’s designation of North Korea as a member of his “axis of evil” in early 2002 was emblematic of the strained relations between the two states as well as his hardline stance on the nuclear issue. When he faced re-election in 2004 it was hardly surprising that Pyongyang favored his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. Though both presidential candidates were committed to North Korean denuclearization, they differed on approaches to the negotiation process. Kerry favored direct bilateral talks with North Korea within the Six Party Talks framework, while Bush saw this as granting excessive bargaining power to Kim Jong-il. North Korea made their opinion all but official as early as February 2004 when state media aired a number of statements made by Senator Kerry as well as praise for his commitment for a more “sincere attitude” towards North Korea and his criticism of President Bush’s unwillingness for direct dialogue.[1]

2008: Obama vs. McCain

As senators Barack Obama and John McCain vied for the presidency in 2008, the North Korean political machine seemed to prefer Bush’s eventual successor. While both candidates espoused their commitment to denuclearization, the key difference was again on holding direct talks with North Korean leaders. McCain criticized Obama’s willingness to meet with Kim Jong-il, while Obama attributed the expansion of the DPRK nuclear program to unwillingness of the Bush administration to engage in bilateral talks.

Although a North Korean government organization may not have publicly backed Obama, an endorsement came from an organization closest to being an official arm of the state. In June 2008 the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, more commonly known as the Chosen Soren or the Chongryon, published an article in the “echo” section of their newspaper, containing articles reflective of official DPRK opinions, which asserted Obama would be the better president. The article praised Obama’s criticism of the Bush administration and his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-il without conditions, calling McCain “a children’s version of Bush.” Despite this condemnation of McCain, the authors concluded the U.S. would have no choice but to seek improved relations with North Korea even if even if the Arizona Senator was elected, a notion which proved to be quite far removed from reality.

2016: Clinton vs. Trump

North Korea’s comments on Donald Trump earlier this year were arguably the most straightforward endorsement, coinciding with the largest break between how each candidate would approach the security situation on the Korean Peninsula in recent history. Whereas Clinton’s remarks suggest she would pursue at least somewhat similar policies as the Obama administration, Trump’s statements on removing U.S. military forces from South Korea if Seoul does not increase their contribution to the military burden sharing arrangement and possibly offering nuclear weapons to South Korea represent a radical divergence from Obama. While Pyongyang’s preference this election cycle could be interpreted as a continuation of the 2004 and 2008 trend to support the candidate who distanced himself the most from the previous administration, the timing of this year’s endorsement reinforces talks as the core of their interests.

As early as July last year Donald Trump questioned the foundations of U.S. military presence in South Korea on economic grounds and in March this year he was first publically open to the idea of South Korea and Japan becoming nuclear weapon states so that the U.S. could decrease its military presence in the region, yet it was not until just after Trump expressed his willingness to speak with Kim Jong-un on May 17 that North Korea voiced their support. The Kim regime’s apparent preference for bilateral engagement prospects above all else is further bolstered by the lack of enthusiasm for either Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012, both of which did not advocate for direct talks, Obama having been burned by the Leap Day Deal and Romney criticizing Obama for not being tough enough on the rogue state.

Significance for 2017

Why does this apparent preference for talks matter, especially as direct dialogue between the U.S. and DPRK continues to be so far out of reach? Despite backing his call for dialogue, North Korea’s approach towards Obama at the onset of his presidency—attempting their first “satellite launch” and testing a second nuclear device soon after he was inaugurated—rather unsurprisingly suggested a lack of interest in actual talks. However, this experience in 2009 could indicate that a candidate’s openness to talks during campaign season may be interpreted as North Korea’s desire to test a more dovish candidate’s mettle early in an administration or an opportunity to exploit perceived slack offered by U.S. leadership, providing a window for increased provocative behavior, not direct talks.

If this is indeed part of North Korea’s calculus when choosing a candidate, it is particularly disconcerting for this election cycle. In early 2009, Obama was forced into a much tougher stance on North Korea, coordinating international pressure against the Kim regime rather than bilateral meetings. If faced with similar or possibly worse circumstances in early 2017, would Trump play his cards as his predecessor did or fold and walk away from the table? Even if he were to push back against regime in reality, campaign rhetoric resulting in the perception that he would completely abandon longstanding U.S. policy norms in Asia could encourage much more aggressive North Korean activity right from the start of his presidency. In a worst case scenario it would not be a war of words, but a conflict caused by a misunderstanding of the importance of words.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Korean sources utilized in this post were translated by Jiwon Nam, an intern at KEI. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image designed by Jenna Gibson, KEI’s Director of Communications from images on the photostreams of the Center for American Progress, Gage Skidmore, and Jason Means.

[1] This comes from the March 5, 2004 Financial Times article “North Korea warms to senator’s US presidency bid” written by Andrew Ward and James Harding. The article is no longer searchable on the Financial Times website and was accessed through the Financial Times Historical Archive, 1888-2010

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