By Troy Stangarone
As it begins to sink in that the next U.S. president will be Donald Trump, one question that will be on the mind of those in Northeast Asia is what will Donald Trump’s North Korea policy look like? While North Korea was a more significant topic during the 2016 election than in past elections, discussions of its weapons programs were largely driven by Pyongyang’s own tests rather than an effort to articulate a clear policy on how to address the challenges that lie ahead. In contrast, for much of the campaign much of Mr. Trump’s commentary focused more on South Korea rather than the regime to the north.
President-elect Trump ran on a campaign that could up end much of the bipartisan foreign policy and international order that has existed since the end of the Second World War. This includes rethinking the nature of U.S. alliances and the role of the United States in the world. As a result, it is unlikely that a clear policy on North Korea will be articulated without a review of the policy options open to the administration within the new framework that they put in place.
However, we should expect the North Korea policy of a Trump administration to differ from the Obama administration, potentially significantly.
The first step of a Trump administration would likely be to reprioritize issues with China. Throughout the campaign, Trump has suggested that he would be tougher on China on economic issues and that China could solve the North Korea problem if it really wanted to. While the Obama administration sought China’s cooperation on issues such as climate change, the Iran nuclear talks, and matters of global economic coordination, these issues are unlikely to be a priority for the Trump administration. This could free it to be more aggressive in its use of economic sanctions against Chinese banks and businesses that do business with North Korea.
In addition to being more aggressive in his approach to China, a Trump administration may seek to use sanctions to pressure Iran to end its cooperation with North Korea, potentially as part of a redefined nuclear deal with Iran.
While Trump suggested during the campaign that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un, similar to the Obama administration this is unlikely in the near term and would only likely be on the table if a deal had been reached on or was close to being concluded with North Korea on its nuclear program. However, it may indicate a greater openness to negotiations.
However, during the campaign President-elect Trump also signaled that he is more open to extracting the United States from the world’s problems. While this does not necessarily mean that a Trump administration would walk away from sanctions on North Korea, something which might lead to strong resistance on Capitol Hill in his own party, he could push for South Korea and Japan to play more significant roles in deterring North Korea from using its weapons program.
One aspect that any North Korea policy will need to entail is the reassurance of U.S. allies in the region. The discussion during the campaign of burden sharing and the suggestion that a Trump administration could remove U.S. troops from South Korea or Japan if they did not pay 100 percent of the costs has created a degree of policy uncertainty and concern that the U.S. may no longer be a reliable ally. Reassuring U.S. allies of our commitment to their defense will be an early key element of any policy.
At the same time, this policy will need to be fairly public and clear to avoid sending the wrong signals to North Korea about U.S. commitment the alliance. We have already seen some moves in this direction.
During the campaign North Korea took the rare step of expressing their support for Donald Trump out of the prospect that he would weaken the alliance and potentially remove U.S. troops. This is an idea for which the new administration will need to quickly disabuse policy makers in Pyongyang of to avoid any miscalculations on North Korea’s part.
At the same time, we should also expect the new administration to be tested soon by North Korea and perhaps even during the final remaining weeks of the Obama administration. Not because of any pattern of testing new leaders in the United States and South Korea, but because in many ways a Trump administration presents an unknown to both North Korea and U.S. allies in the region. Seeking to exploit this uncertainty and exploit a potential opportunity to divide the U.S. and its allies would be in Pyongyang’s strategic interest.
While these are potential policy options that a Trump administration could or should pursue, we should also keep in mind that administrations often veer significantly from their campaign rhetoric as the necessities of governance begin to come into focus. Bill Clinton campaigned against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as negotiated and being tough on China, two policies he reversed course on. Barack Obama also campaigned on amending NAFTA.
In terms of the key policy elements, we should also look closely to the cabinet officials and key advisors that President-elect Trump appoints for signals of his administration’s potential policies. While President-elect Trump has had a propensity to be his own advisor and the nature of his victory will give him a freer hand than some presidents to pursue their preferred policy options, the nature of the presidency is such that a president cannot micromanage every issue and therefore will need to delegate key aspects of policy to advisors. While much of the Republican establishment has stated that they would not work for a Trump administration, that stance will likely soften now that the campaign has concluded.
While the nature of elections means there is a degree of uncertainty of how a candidate will govern, there do seem to be some clear outlines for how a Trump administration would seek to handle the challenges presented by North Korea. These include greater pressure on China and other countries providing aid to North Korea, but also a willingness to pursue a different course. The key for the Trump administration will be to strengthen U.S. alliances in the region as it considers new options for dealing with North Korea.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Matt Johnson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.