Synopsis of Washington, DC Meetings on Trump and the Korean Peninsula

A presidential transition in the United States understandably raises concern in allied countries heavily dependent for security and diplomacy. The transition from Obama to Trump is more unsettling than even the Carter to Reagan transition or the Clinton to Bush transition. Compounding the problem, the power transition and dangerous standoffs in East Asia keep US allies South Korea and Japan in a state of continuous trepidation, torn between worries about entrapment and abandonment. No wonder that meetings in Washington, DC in the late fall of 2016 have had a higher degree of urgency and anxiety than in recent years. While individual Japanese speakers have raised similar concerns, Korean delegations have been in the forefront in soliciting feedback on what is transpiring, seeking reassurance on the impact on US-ROK ties.

Searching for parallels to the Trump transition, DC speakers point to two examples: the Reagan transition in 1980-1982, when contradictory signals and sharp clashes by the White House with the State Department and others left US policy toward China in limbo until Reagan opted for clarification with the 3rd Communique; and the Roh transition in 2002-2005, when his shaky signals of intent left the US side troubled with some voices ready to exert strong pressure. What makes 2016-2017 (perhaps longer) unique is the higher stakes given regional developments and the likelihood that the divergent directions of the two allies in 2002-2004 will now be even sharper. While in the earlier period, Seoul had room to maneuver without being pressed to take the US or the Chinese side (the ROK-US split was mainly about North Korea), this time polarization is more pronounced, as are demands for exclusivity with one side. South Koreans fear both abandonment by a willful dealmaker and entrapment by a circle of hawkish generals around Trump. Either way, unilateralism diminishes their role.

The Trump victory has abruptly transformed foreign relations in East Asia. Whereas Abe was pursuing Putin against US advice, now Japan and others are concerned that Trump will pursue Putin in ways not favorable to their interests. Whereas the South Korean government feared insufficient US support for pressuring North Korea, now there is concern that excessive US pressure could occur. Sino-US relations seemed to be on a typical US election cycle until they were jolted by the threat of a downturn far more serious than any since normalization. Trump’s transition to power can be viewed from many angles, and here the focus is on the South Korean perspective and how it is being discussed in exchanges in Washington DC with those following it.

Uncertainty prevails about Trump’s policies in East Asia. Will he abandon the vital US leadership role, leaving a vacuum since no other state is able to replace it, and having an especially strong impact on South Korea and Japan, which depend on it? Will he refocus US military power more narrowly on the defense of the United States rather than on maintenance of the regional and international order, leaving East Asia without essential public goods? Will support for the liberal economic system be sustained even after TPP is abandoned? Will the United States remain a beacon of democracy and human rights or will Trump’s image and policies erase this model? South Korea is not alone in questioning whether Trump will undercut these roles. The indispensable, irreplaceable US alliance requires regular reassurances, which Trump’s rhetoric, choice of personnel to date, and uncertain relations with China as well as others leave in doubt rarely seen in recent times. This situation is being compounded by political uncertainty in South Korea, leaving the US side without reassurances too in a regional environment so much in flux that states grasp for clarity.

Donald Trump’s election victory aroused concern in South Korea, which—in sharp contrast to Japan—has not measurably diminished. The contrast between the two countries finds one with stable leadership with a good chance to stay in power until 2021 and the other with a chaotic impeachment process with no clarity even on the political disposition of the next president or on the timing of the transition. It finds Abe pulling out all stops to solidify Japan-US relations—first making his case to Trump and then trying to assuage Obama with a joint Pearl Harbor appearance—, as South Koreans nervously contemplate a downturn in Sino-US relations that could reverberate in more troubled ROK-US relations. The Trump “shock” in Japan at first was more pronounced than in South Korea, preoccupied with its own internal chaos, but it has attenuated in Japan, while it keeps building in Seoul’s unstable situation.

Korean concerns about the Trump administration may be misplaced in two major respects. First, many fear that he would give low priority to East Asian and North Korean security matters, given his obsessions with the Middle East and Russia as well as economic aims. Yet, surrounding himself with generals and working closely with Republicans focused on nuclear proliferation as well as naval shortfalls, Trump is hardly likely to let North Korea and China off easy. Second, Trump’s loose talk in regard to meeting Kim Jong-un has some concerned that he would strike a deal that reduces the threat to the US mainland while taking his eye off of the threat to South Korea. Few in DC appear to share that concern, although they too lack clear answers.

The General Outlook on North Korea in Washington, DC

In some presentations both before and after the presidential elections, the message was unmistakable that North Korea’s threat to the United States has risen to a level unprecedented from any other state since the end of the Cold War. Of course, threats from Moscow or Beijing involve mutually assured destruction and those from ISIS and Al Qaeda could lead to unpredictable terrorism, but North Korea stands apart as the possible source of nuclear blackmail or nuclear weapons proliferation. Not only are its nuclear tests alarming, its astounding progress in missile technology is widely seen as an unacceptable risk, which must be countered quickly. Implicit or explicit in this argument are the following: preemption is on the table; the US-Japan-ROK military triangle now has much greater priority; pressure on China to deal with this threat will keep growing, and China will not be given a veto on the decisions to be made; missile defense, including THAAD, is increasingly urgent; and the US policy toward North Korea needs a far-reaching review and greater clarity. Whether the theme was specifically the Korean Peninsula or global security more generally, these were messages raised by speakers or audiences aware of their far-reaching import.

Given the above context, how should the US-ROK alliance evolve? Obviously, there is no alternative to waiting until Trump decides—if after a test of a nuclear weapon or intercontinental missile by North Korea, it would mean that the issue now would fall on his shoulders even if he preferred to wait—whether to extend the sanctions track with a wider secondary boycott, alienating China, or to seek engagement with China involved or bypassing China. The two options have widely different implications for the alliance. Even as the wait continues, discussions raise various relevant factors. Some factors are related to North Korea, for instance its economic situation; others to China, Russia, and Japan, as countries impacting the prospects of realizing goals for the US-ROK alliance related to North Korea and to stability in Northeast Asia.

One factor is the North Korean economy. How easily pressured is the regime, given economic conditions? The marketization of the economy has reduced the impact of sanctions, as has China’s exploitation of the “livelihood” provision it had insisted on inserting into resolution 2270. In light of this reality and the need to allow time to see how the new resolution 2321 of November 30, including sharp cuts in the coal exports permitted, is implemented, some see value in waiting to evaluate how the sanctions are working. Despite recent North Korean economic vitality, prevailing opinion in DC is that serious sanctions have barely begun—the two Security Council resolutions are useful, and US laws give the president ample authority to up the pressure considerably on specific companies. A divide exists, however, between those ready to keep working with China and others who think that it is time to sanction Chinese firms without any longer seeking China’s cooperation. Resolution 2321 is expected to reduce North Korean income from exports of coal and other minerals by about USD 800 million if China implements it fully, but claims by China that it was unaware of violations of resolution 2270 and inclusion again of the livelihood clause leave many dubious that the new resolution is likely to work much better.

US strategic objectives on the Korean Peninsula are three-fold: to protect South Korea, for which US blood was shed and a success story has been well-internalized; to avoid war, which since 2010 has again loomed larger; and to roll back the nuclear weapons development program until it does not pose a threat to the United States or the region. Is the order of these interests changing? If so, there may be greater divergence between ROK and US objectives. As the nuclear weapons and missile capabilities of Pyongyang advance and the threat to the United States grows, the US priority may shift from avoiding war to rolling back a threat, while trying to protect Seoul. While in 1994 ‘no war’ easily took priority, despite contingency plans in case a shift in priorities occurred, the balance is less clear today. In any case, US policy toward the North is based also on calculations, however imperfect, on its intentions. As long as it is understood that they include getting rid of South Korea—with acquisition of nuclear weapons a symptom of this goal ,not just of regime survival—protecting the South becomes a driving force for pressing for denuclearization. If this is a goal, then peaceful unification without democratization in the North is not a panacea but just a threat to the existence of South Korea as we know it and should be accepted only if the South Korean people choose this path. This is a perspective aired lately in Washington.

In weighing whether a freeze is desirable with reduced sanctions, the question of the North’s intentions takes precedence. Sanctions have made the situation better, they serve the purpose of the nonproliferation regime, they have spillover effects in keeping Iran under pressure, and they strengthen the US alliances with South Korea and Japan. To shift to a freeze without denuclearization clearly on the agenda means de facto recognition of the North as a nuclear state with lost of all of these spillover benefits via the current approach. Indeed, tougher sanctions are needed to show the North Korean leaders and others that the US will is set. This does not preclude talks without rewarding the North or undercutting the international community. Regional diplomacy sets the background for this; keeping China’s half-hearted cooperation in this endeavor is worthwhile, but persisting without its full cooperation is preferable to tradeoffs costly to other goals and unlikely to seriously alter China’s calculus. As the time nears when North Korea’s threat to the United States (and sense that this gives it more leverage to bully South Korea) is imminent, a warning that China’s lack of cooperation is critical may lead to warnings to China that preemption is possible and that a cutoff of oil may be the best way to avoid it could be under consideration. Discussion was split between those who see this moment already arriving and those who put it off for two years or so. While some seek to bypass this stark choice with talk of pursuing regime change, many do not see that as realistic without a strike on North Korea—whether preemptive or in response to aggression that it launches.

The China Factor

The growing view in DC is that China is part of the problem, not of the solution, in addressing the threat from North Korea. Rather than build on the November 30 UN resolution, in which China agreed to a sharp cut in North Korean coal imports and other provisions, many are inclined to promptly put increased pressure on China, as by applying secondary sanctions against Chinese firms. They link US hostility to Iran and North Korea, have no optimism that either country will change, and are intent on increasing pressure rather than preparing for dialogue. To pressure North Korea they plan to change China’s cost-benefit calculus. While they would welcome close coordination with South Korea as well as Japan in sending a clear message to China that sanctions must be comprehensive, they are less sensitive to allies’ alternative viewpoints than the Obama administration was. Indeed, the closest parallel may be the way Donald Rumsfeld and others in the early George W. Bush years reacted to Roh Moo-hyun’s perceived anti-Americanism and tilt to China. Whereas many of the military officers and conservatives in South Korea would welcome grater emphasis on secondary sanctions and pressure on China, progressives are favored to acquire more power and, many fear, put ROK-US relations at risk during the coming period.

One perspective is that North Korea will only denuclearize through dialogue with it and with China. Otherwise, intensified sanctions will be seen as intended for regime change and will have no prospect of working. This is countered by a majority view that diplomacy can only be focused on denuclearization, and neither the North nor China will agree to that; so increased pressure and increased defensive steps are necessary even to have a chance for serious talks. Developments in 2016 have been a game changer for the Obama administration even before Trump chooses a course. Through resolution 2321 and unilateral sanctions coordinated with South Korea and Japan, pressure will be seriously accelerated. Through missile defense buildup, including THAAD, as well as much more integrated trilateralism, defense efforts will also be substantially boosted. China may be kept on board with US willingness to engage in talks with North Korea and Six-Party Talks once the North agrees to the principle of denuclearization. This is current administration thinking, but Trump may decide to pressure China more and treat it more as the source of the trouble.

China’s motives are suspect in dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem. Its notion of “stability” is less about preventing increasing threat than about shaping a balance of power favorable to its establishment of a sphere of influence without any turbulent resistance. The idea that talks should begin following an unverifiable and less consequential freeze, simultaneously discussing denuclearization and a peace regime, is seen as a recipe for alliance busting and other mischief quite removed from regional stability. Also, few think that this would proceed without payments to the North for a moratorium on testing, which it would break at a time of its choosing if the payments were insufficient, and a reduction in sanctions, which would take the pressure off. Another likely demand by the North would be the removal of all designations for human rights violations of its leaders. A return to the cycle of less pressure for minor concessions would undercut the seriousness of the response to North Korea, many assert, adding that this would play into China’s hands as well. In response, there is insistence that no alternative exists to pressuring North Korea and keeping together the consensus of international society, bolstered by Seoul’s global diplomacy to deny North Korea diplomatic space and expose its human rights abuses.

China identifies as the top three security concerns for Sino-US relations Taiwan, the South China Sea, and North Korea. Those confident of US power see Taiwan and the South China Sea more narrowly as arenas where China’s use of military force must be deterred, not as matters where Sino-US talks must find an accommodation. It is doubtful that the US side would find common ground with China; it will be focused instead on building the US navy, strengthening various alliances, and arming those in China’s line of fire, including Taiwan. As for North Korea, there is likely to be less patience with China’s priority for “stability” (regime survival and balance of power considerations) over denuclearization. These concerns are no longer to restrain the US side—under Trump—as much as they have, but that shift was occurring under Obama as well, especially in regard to North Korea and also the South China Sea.

The early signs as Republicans are emboldened by Trump’s election is to press hard for regime change in North Korea, losing hope in diplomacy and in China’s support.

One interpretation is that North Korea lives in the space formed by the geopolitical mistrust between the United States and China, and that space is likely to widen and give more room to North Korea. To narrow the space, some propose pressuring China, e.g., with secondary sanctions, arguing that China will give ground. Others would consider tradeoffs with China since geopolitical gains in one area could be offset in another. Still others fear that Trump will target China for reasons that fail to win understanding from other countries, such as changing US policy toward Taiwan without any provocation by China. Then, China would make geopolitical linkages not welcome in South Korea or in the United States. While Trump was mostly feared as a threat of abandonment, within weeks of his election entrapment became the prime concern. South Koreans largely prefer to narrow the space between China and the United States; so Trump’s entrapment moves are bound to be unwelcome there.

Discussion of whether China really thinks that it can split the US-ROK alliance led to reviews of the past two decades. After many years of growing optimism that this is possible, Chinese were disquieted to realize in 2008 that this alliance is far stronger than anticipated. Their disappointment—even hopelessness—about achieving the desired result lasted to 2013. Then, again, hopes of splitting were kindled before a second sharp downturn occurred in 2016. Some observers have returned to the view of the Lee Myung-bak era that China has learned its lesson, but others doubt this for at least three reasons: 1) China has a long-term approach for which setbacks are seen as temporary and as sources of leverage to keep being strengthened; 2) US-ROK cohesion is difficult to maintain, and some analysts expect a decline in US power or leadership to give Koreans more reason to fall, however unwittingly, into China’s lap; and 3) there is considerable concern that South Koreans lack the steadfastness and vision to resist China over the long run, given the blandishments from China.

Fearing a crisis that would lead Trump to seriously consider preemption, some see benefit in reaching a geopolitical deal with China. Rather than waiting for the point of crisis—ignoring the issue in order to concentrate on the Middle East and Russia or waiting until the North is deemed capable of a nuclear strike on the US mainland—, priority now should be given to this most dangerous of issues. For a breakthrough with China it was argued that there must be a promise to recognize its geostrategic interests on the Korean Peninsula, including a buffer zone to exist in the North after reunification with no US forces above the 38th parallel, the withdrawal of THAAD as nuclear weapons were removed, and assurances that the US-ROK alliance would be limited to defensive purposes without being turned against China. Such an offer to China, it was explained, should lead to full implementation of tough sanctions and cooperation with secondary sanctions. Should China insist on more, such as a trade for changes in US policy toward Taiwan and the South China Sea, then it should face a more intensified deployment of missile defenses around the Korean Peninsula and unilateral application of secondary sanctions. Along with this strategy would come a flexible offer to North Korea to reconsider its nuclear weapons or face full economic isolation. While attentive to China’s geopolitical interests, this blueprint falls short of what China is likely to accept; so the negative scenario seems assured to many.

Chinese confidence in its own power was growing in 2016, at least until recently. It had success in splitting ASEAN and weaning states away from a US-led coalition in support of the July court ruling against China. TPP was gone. Moreover, it still had hopes for reversing the THAAD decision and taking advantage of a South Korean political implosion. Yet, Trump’s moves in the month after his election threw China off balance. It now realized that there was to be a lot of unpredictability and pushback ahead.

One overview holds that the initial Chinese satisfaction that Trump prevailed over Clinton was misplaced, based on false readings of Trump as an isolationist eager to reduce the US burden abroad and obsessed with the Middle East not East Asia. In this thinking, Chinese expected GOP downgrading of human rights and deal making over economics. As Chinese leaders are awakening to the hard line on military and Taiwan matters coming from Trump and his willingness to risk a trade war given his view that weak trade negotiators have cost countless US jobs, they are indicating that the response will be tough, likely including less cooperation on North Korea. If some saw signs of polarization in East Asia before, these now are unmistakable.

The Russia Factor

The difference between Trump and Republicans over Russia policy will affect how North Korea is treated, some anticipate. They see US overtures to Russia focused on economic deals, but little room to compromise with Russia on security questions such as Iran, missile defense, and Sino-Russian military cooperation. While Trump may dismiss the State Department and intelligence community’s assessments, in line with his and Michael Flynn’s longstanding disregard for professional channels and processes, the defense community and its close ties to Congress will likely limit their tendency to give Russia the benefit of the doubt. Also, Putin’s priority for Russia’s revival as a military great power with a quasi-alliance with China and hostility to the US military and missile defense will pose a huge obstacle. Should John Bolton have a chance to resume his Bush-era crusade against State Department professionals, as if they were all weaklings intent on arms control, not on US strength, complications may ensue. Yet, insisting on strength and confronting China—as well as refusing to yield to Russia on missile defense such as THAAD’s importance in South Korea—would likely limit Trump’s continued pursuit of US-Russian rapprochement.

Some South Koreans, as Japanese, hold out hope that Russia will play a positive role on the Korean Peninsula. If Seoul (or Tokyo) cannot bring this about with diplomacy and appeals to economic interests, then Washington might succeed, it is assumed. Thus, Trump’s pursuit of Putin is viewed with hope that it will diminish polarization in East Asia. Few in Washington, taking a wider view of Putin’s foreign policy and a more sober look at Sino-Russian relations, think that Seoul or Tokyo or even Trump can succeed in changing Putin’s course. Such efforts are likelier to split the allies.

The Japan Factor

Before there is trouble over policy differences toward China, there may be a US-ROK clash over Japan. Given public sentiment in South Korea, the easiest shift in foreign policy for a coming administration may be to pull back from the very recent GSOMIA agreement with Japan and renew criticism over the “comfort women” issue, that is reversing Park’s position in the December 29, 2015 deal. In light of the priority given to alliance trilateralism—likely more so in an incoming administration opposed to China and North Korea—, US pressure on Seoul could be greater than seen before. Not only do the progressives and the Korean public lack appreciation for Japan’s vital role in defense of their country, even the South Korean military officers often surprise Americans with their limited recognition of this, listeners heard in DC exchanges on problems that remain serious in Japan-ROK relations.

South Korean talk of building an independent nuclear force as a deterrent or of the re-stationing of tactical nuclear weapons on Korean soil meets with skepticism. After all, the US extended deterrence exists, tactical nukes would become targets of less value than weapons kept at a distance, and diversion of massive funds for a nuclear weapons program would duplicate US assets and come at the expense of priorities recognized as the way to strengthen deterrence. Some see the emergence of these themes not just as a sign of worry about the US extended deterrence, but also as an indicator of resistance to the growing pressure to accede to trilateralism with Japan.

It is assumed that Trump will continue Obama’s push for strong ROK-Japan military ties, as a form of burden-sharing. Resistance to this in Seoul would be deemed a sign of ideological thinking taking precedence over national interests. The US appeal is likely to go beyond deterrence of North Korea to maintenance of the liberal regional order. While Seoul may have some success in keeping the focus exclusively on the threat from North Korea, it is unlikely to win sympathy by opposing this initiative.


The year 2016 has brought more news about the Korean Peninsula than could have been imagined at the outset. North Korea went on testing sprees. South Korea fell into the abyss of a scandal that is toppling its president. Sanctions have intensified both through two Security Council resolutions and individual sanctions by South Korea, the United States, and Japan. And with the election of Donald Trump there was greater uncertainty about US policy than at any time since the early 2000s. As we look ahead, prospects for 2017 are in flux given uncertainty over both South Korean and US policies and possible spillover from changes in Sino-US relations.

Whatever concerns exist about reshaping regionalism in ways that narrow Seoul’s choices or burden-sharing demands that increase pressure on Seoul, the main issue is North Korea and the possibility that the US side will double down on deterrence while a new South Korean leadership will seek less conditional diplomacy. If the US side decides that China has reached the limit of the pressure it will apply and seeks to impose unilateral secondary sanctions mainly on Chinese companies, then Seoul may decide that this is too provocative, ending prospects for Chinese cooperation (as may also be happening because of other changes in Sino-US relations). A divide of this sort could go beyond the sharp divide under Roh Moo-hyun. Although targets would be Chinese banks and companies (including shell North Korean ones) and not the Chinese government, its response would likely be defensive and confrontational.

A concern raised by Korean and Japanese speakers as well is that loss of respect for the United States, symbolized by Trump (the legacy of his campaign, his tendency to make snap decisions, his lack of consultations with allies and those who appreciate their concerns, and his potential policies), can lead to calls for a more independent foreign policy in their countries. This not only would undermine US leadership, it may create a false sense of confidence that the alternatives proposed are the better path to East Asian stability, even as populists and idealists actually steer people in unpromising directions. Without the normative dimension in US policy (already hurt by abandonment of TPP), there is likely to be a severe loss in US authority. Internationalism would suffer, as decisions of a narrower nature were taken.

Another perspective on the ROK-US relationship is that unless it acquires a regional focus, the shift beyond North Korea to a broader agenda—including the claims of a global alliance—will be unsustainable. The regional environment complicates the alliance’s transformation. Regional institutions are weak, China is forging a sphere of influence, military power is being diffused, and the Trump impact is not seen as conducive to multilateralism. Especially with China perceived as trying to turn the Korean Peninsula into part of its sphere of influence and to make use of North Korea’s threats for that objective, it will not be easy to keep the alliance strong. Trends in 2016 were favorable for the alliance, but on both sides they are being challenged. Koreans may not be ready to resist China as much as they were this year, and they may not give the same priority to strengthening alliance security and insisting on North Korean acceptance of the goal of denuclearization. If they should back away from THAAD, for instance, this would be unwelcome to the United States. Such uncertain outcomes contribute to anxious discussions in Washington not only about the ROK-US alliance but also about many other foreign and domestic policy prospects.