In light of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 Presidential election, I answered a few questions along with other North Korea analysts for NK News on policy implications for the Korean Peninsula. I reproduce my answers below.
1. What does a Trump victory mean for South Korea’s nuclear aspirations?
2. How can we expect North Korea to respond to Trump’s victory?
3. How might the Trump victory impact Seoul’s relationship with North Korea?
To try to project how Donald Trump will deal with any given policy issue is a fool’s errand. Trump is notorious for advancing policies that are altogether unlikely to transpire, such as building a wall along the Mexican border or imposing 40% across-the board tariffs. He is also well-known for making casual comments that may or may not be serious, for example with respect to nuclear weapons in Northeast Asia. Third, we still do not know who his core Asia policy and Korea advisors will be. Will he bring in complete outsiders or will he be forced to draw on those reflecting the longer-standing bipartisan consensus on the region? And who, exactly, will even be willing to work with the administration?
Trump’s national security strategy is characterized by a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, he has run on a platform to rebuild the military and made bold statements about defeating ISIS. But at the same time, he has shown great reluctance to actually engage in the world, most notably in his discussion of alliances and trade policy. He has also tossed off highly-unorthodox approaches, such as working with Vladimir Putin or sitting down to a hamburger with Kim Jong Un. Who can take any of this seriously?
What does all of this mean for the Korean peninsula? The answer could be “not much.” Trump is likely to be constrained with respect to the alliance relations once in office, and may even seek to assure Seoul and Tokyo given his prior comments. No doubt, the new administration will undertake a policy review with respect to North Korea, but it is not likely to be a high priority given the other challenges the new administration will face, such as actually outlining policies with respect to the various foreign policy challenges the country faces. None of the fundamental constraints on the peninsula have magically changed as a result of Trump being elected.
The one area where relations on the peninsula might change is on the economic front. Trump put the KORUS in his sights. But even on a core Trump policy issue such as trade, it seems doubtful that he will be able to do what he says he wants to do.
In short, no one knows—nor can possibly know—how US policy toward the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia will be affected by a Trump victory. With Secretary Clinton, it was “pivot plus.” With Trump, it could be anything, but with the safest bet in continuity. For now.