US-ROK Relations

The US relationship with the Korean Peninsula is an interesting variation of a strategic triangle.1 Indeed, the United States’ relationships with North Korea and South Korea are hard to analyze except as part of this triangle. Traditionally, the tight and robust US-ROK alliance, along with North Korea’s isolation from the international system, has limited if not precluded North Korea from playing one side off of the other. In order to deal with the North Korean security threat, the United States and South Korea have sought to maintain the status quo in a coordinated fashion (deterrence), with relatively few coordinated efforts at engagement in tandem with continued show of military resolve and capabilities (cautious confidence-building). A nuclear North Korea has in effect strengthened the US-ROK alliance while also preventing the United States or South Korea from moving independently. All three states have stated the need for tension reduction and improved relations. However, with uncertainty and understandable, valid distrust, each has been paralyzed—unable and/or unwilling to disrupt the current balance—and waiting for the other to make the first move.

Prior to 2018, the expectation has been that North Korea would need to set aside its hostility, open to third-party inspectors to monitor the denuclearization process, and improve its governance and human rights practices before the United States and South Korea would even meet at the leader level. However, absent security guarantees or protection against interference in domestic governance, Pyongyang has shunned that sequence.

The 2018 summit between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was an unexpected shock to this strategic triangle. Trump’s unconventional and risky style of foreign relations meant he was willing to not only sit down with the North Korean leader, but also to ignore or even excuse the traditional critiques of North Korean leadership that most US diplomats bring to the fore. Trump’s disruptive (albeit unpredictable) statements and actions have the potential to be the “circuit-breaker”2 that opens new paths for the US-DPRK relationship. For its part, having demonstrated its nuclear weapons and mid- and long-range missile capabilities, North Korea now feels empowered to sit at the table with a global superpower.3 North Korean officials also likely recognize the rare alignment of external factors that facilitate a better position in negotiating. This includes not only Trump’s soft stance on authoritarians and near-sidelining of traditional US partners like Japan, but also South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s desire for reconciliation with the North. This year’s unprecedented and unusual US-DPRK summit throws that triangle into question, but the military and political implications for the US-ROK alliance depend on several delicate questions largely dependent on the trustworthiness and level of commitment of not only North Korea (as has been the sticking point in past negotiations) but this time of the United States under Trump as well.

The ROK-US-DPRK Triangle

The impact of the June 2018 US-DPRK summit on US-ROK relations can best be assessed by looking at the historical trajectory of the structural features of the trilateral relationship. Throughout the Cold War, the only amity in the triangle was between the United States and South Korea; the inter-Korean relationship and the US-DPRK relationships were each hostile. Importantly, South Korea and North Korea struggled for international recognition in a peninsular manifestation of the Cold War contest. But the close of the Cold War along with South Korea’s increased capabilities meant South Korea sought a new role in the international community. Moreover, South Korea’s increased political and military clout resulted in its becoming more of a partner rather than client in the US-ROK alliance. South Korean attitudes toward the alliance have vacillated between the fear of abandonment and the need for autonomy and have worked hard to ensure US-ROK closeness and keeping North Korea as pariah in the triangle.4 In the 1980s as the Sino-Soviet-US competitive triangle began to warm, the United States and North Korea pursued low-level political dialogue in the mid-1980s through their embassies in Beijing. Under Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Gaston J. Sigur, Jr., who served the Reagan administration, the United States established limited dialogue with the DPRK and loosened restrictions on cultural, humanitarian, and financial exchanges.5

The end of the Cold War had mixed effects on US-DPRK relations. The new international order with United States at the head removed the grand obstacles to dialogue. The broader structure of Cold War confrontation gone, the United States had less grand strategic risk in working directly with North Korea. Moreover, because Washington tended to view the Korean conflict as a regional manifestation of the Cold War, it sought to tie up loose ends in the new era. Finally, emergent concern over the potential for North Korean nuclear proliferation drew the attention of Washington, which the United States believed needed direct interaction with Pyongyang. Even though some in South Korea voiced concern over the exchange, the United States accepted North Korea as a direct dialogue partner.

However, North Korea fell on a low rung of US priorities in the early 1990s and rather than a target for serious, sustained, high-level engagement, most in Washington saw the peninsula as a potential flashpoint for regional conflict that needed management, not a solution.6 President George H.W. Bush’s decision to withdraw land-based nuclear weapons from all foreign soil in 1990 paved the way for dialogue, as did South Korean president Roh Tae-woo’s statement that South Korea was nuclear weapons–free. Tangible progress on the US-DPRK relationship didn’t occur until 1992, following the first North Korean “nuclear crisis.” The Bush Sr. administration offered to meet with the North Koreans should they commit to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreement that outlined nuclear safeguards, which Pyongyang signed in 1992. This coincided with North Korea lessening its anti-American propaganda, which could be interpreted as signaling its desire to improve relations with the United States.7

Signed in December 1991, the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea (or “Basic Agreement”) comprised a variety of ambitious goals, including tension reduction mechanisms, economic exchanges, joint development projects, cultural exchanges, and travel and reunion plans.8 But North Korea’s nuclear program quickly became an obstacle to any North-South cooperative efforts and reaffirmed inter-Korean distrust. For the US-DPRK leg of the triangle, the ill-fated 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework committed Pyongyang to closing nuclear reactors in return for 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil per year and the construction of two 1,000-megawatt proliferation-resistant light water reactors. The effort was supplemented with the March 1995 establishment of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), headed by Stephen Bosworth, which was billed as a multilateral support organization that included the United States, Japan, and the ROK. But the Agreed Framework and KEDO caused Seoul discomfort in two main ways. First, President Kim Young-sam expressed his worry to President Clinton in 1993 and 1994 regarding direct US-DPRK negotiations—Seoul did not want to be left out of the diplomatic process. Second, South Korea insisted on a “central” role in providing a South Korean-model light water reactor following the announcement of the Agreed Framework. This required additional US-DPRK negotiations to secure North Korea’s acceptance prior to KEDO’s opening. The Agreed Framework ultimately did not prevent covert efforts by North Korea to pursue a uranium-based path to the development of nuclear weapons, a factor that proved to be the undoing of the agreement in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration.

After this, North Korea routinely failed to uphold its other denuclearization commitments, such as refusing IAEA access for inspections, and explicitly wanted to work directly with Washington—not Seoul—on questions pertaining to its nascent nuclear program. As Victor Cha points out, Pyongyang has regularly sought compliance with aspects of the Agreed Framework that follow US interests rather than South Korea’s. For example, it has discussed IAEA inspections but resisted accepting South Korean light water reactors. This pattern undercut efforts for North-South talks.

Though many analysts looked for signs of change as Kim Jong-un took the mantle of leadership following Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011, the series of missile and nuclear testing in 2013 and Kim’s announcement of the byungjin (two-track) policy9 that same year dashed hopes for international engagement and denuclearization. Kim reportedly made brutal efforts to tighten his grip on power such as tightened border security and a series of purges that included his own uncle. More broadly, North Korea’s diplomatic activities were curtailed, save statements at the UN to protest increasingly tight economic sanctions. Moreover, four nuclear weapons tests from 2013 through 2017 and continued development of its mid- and long-range missile capabilities meant that North Korea was flouting international opprobrium and left little opportunity for engagement. That issue was compounded by the policies in both Seoul and Washington, both of which placed verified and irreversible denuclearization as a precondition for any meetings with Pyongyang. North Korea viewed the alliance’s hardline approach with deep mistrust.10

Moon’s Approach to North Korea

While Trump has been vocal on his primary role in the landmark US-DPRK meeting in Singapore, South Korea has played an essential part in shuttle diplomacy between the two. In 2017, Moon said he wanted to put Seoul in the “driver’s seat” in negotiations with North Korea—a claim that was met with skepticism, particularly since North Korea was continuing to test long-range missiles and eventually a thermonuclear bomb in September of that year.11 Surprising many in South Korea who expected Moon to take the traditionally dovish approach to Pyongyang of his progressive predecessors, Moon signaled to Kim his seriousness about security with the announcement of a “decapitation unit”12 and full deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries to counter the North Korean threat.13

But changes to the inter-Korean relationship have moved at a rapid pace in 2018, particularly starting with North Korea’s decisions to participate in the February Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Moon’s decision for a joined Korean team to walk the opening ceremony together and a combined North-South women’s hockey team cost him slightly politically—many South Koreans disapproved of the move, particularly the joint hockey team.14 Then, in February 2018, Moon welcomed Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jung as part of the North Korean delegation to the Olympics but declined her offer for an inter-Korean summit without guaranteeing certain results from the meeting.15 At the conclusion of the games, Moon then met with Vice President Mike Pence—who had given a chilly treatment to the North Koreans in Pyeongchang—and Pence announced that the United States would be open to talks with North Korea without preconditions. This was a significant departure from previous US policy—not only under the Bush Jr. and Obama administrations, but also the Trump administration—which offered direct talks with North Korea only after significant and verified movement was made on denuclearization. However, Pence indicated that Washington would be taking a tack of “maximum pressure and engagement” simultaneously­—that is, "No pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization… But if you want to talk, we’ll talk."16 It is apparent that Pence’s closed meeting with Moon after the Olympics convinced the vice president of the potential for both South Korea and the United States to move Pyongyang to change with both tough sanctions and a continued demonstration of military resolve and capability along with diplomatic engagement. By repeatedly emphasizing the need for continued economic sanctions, the Moon administration has shown support for Washington’s approach. This is a distinct difference from the Roh Moo-hyun administration, which failed to get US buy-in for its continuation of the Kim Dae-jung “Sunshine Policy” and ultimately undercut US-ROK relations during the Bush years.

With the United States on board with North Korean engagement, Moon’s attempts to work on his campaign promises of multidimensional North Korea progress were less likely to upset the US alliance. Two South Korean special envoys, National Intelligence Service Director Suh Hoon and National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, visited Pyongyang in early March—the first time South Korean officials had met with Kim since he took power in 2011.17 Kim expressed his willingness to denuclearize,18 and Moon was able to plan for an inter-Korean summit at the Joint Security Area. The meeting was significant not only because it was the first ever inter-Korean meeting for Kim, but also because its tone was drastically different from the previous inter-Korean summits—much more friendly and hopeful. The discussions and the resulting Panmunjom declaration included efforts to institutionalize myriad ways for security progress, including discussions of a Peace Treaty, pathways for large-scale economic investment, and plans to restart family reunions. Many of these build on previous inter-Korean agreements, such as the 1992 Basic Agreement. 19 Notably, Kim’s public remarks with Moon emphasized national unity, not unification.20 The 1992 agreement laid out a pathway toward reunification that was dependent upon both governments’ mutual recognition of the other and a confederation effort; the political, economic, and security challenges of which were just too high to make feasible given North Korea’s aims and the geopolitical realities of the time.

The inter-Korean summit—along with Kim’s two meetings with Xi Jinping on Chinese soil—made it politically viable to continue plans for the US-DRPK summit. Doubts about continued North Korean outreach were corroborated when North Korea canceled high-level talks with the South scheduled for May 16 citing to (scheduled) US-ROK joint military exercises21 and threatened to cancel the US-DPRK summit, denouncing National Security Advisor John Bolton’s stated plans for a “Libyan model” for North Korea’s denuclearization.22 Bolton’s statement was out of line with the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea and the White House tried to walk it back, and officials on both sides jockeyed to find a “neutral” location for the summit.23

Trump’s Foreign Policy “Brand” and North Korea

Trump’s unconventional approach to managing allies, friends, and adversaries is, for better or worse, perhaps the biggest factor shaking up US diplomatic opportunities. Trump has been a disruptor to American foreign policy, and his dealings with North Korea since taking office in 2017 certainly epitomize that disruption. There are two overarching themes to Trump’s foreign relations tack that represent a significant shift in what motivates US leadership in its foreign policy decisions: his view of foreign relations in economic terms and his desire for “No Friends, No Enemies.” Both are relevant to Trump’s relations with North Korea and South Korea. First, Trump tends to cast all challenges and benefits for the United States in economic terms—mainly as “bad deals” (most often) or “good deals” (less often). The method for evaluating those deals seems to be purely in terms of bottom-line financial figures. This black-and-white view to seeing international relations has meant that economic benefit outweighs other aspects of foreign policy, particularly visible when it comes to long-standing trade deals with friends and allies of the United States; put differently, his approach precludes seeing the non-financial benefits of regional commerce, particularly with traditional security allies. As one senior administration official explained, “We have to explain to him [Trump] that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation.”24  

This new brand of mercantilism has the potential to create trade frictions that bubble up between US trading partners who are traditionally friends and/or allies.25 This is particularly the case with his interactions in Asia. Upon his election the Trans-Pacific Partnership was effectively dead.26 US-Japan trade relations are strained, particularly since Japan was hard-hit by the metal tariffs Trump imposed in May 2018,27 and Shinzo Abe is working hard to get in better graces with Trump by encouraging imports like aircraft.28 And last year’s first meeting between Trump and Moon revealed a crack in US-South Korea relationship when it came to the Korea-US (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has criticized as “horrible.”29

This narrowly defined bottom line was likewise a key point of Trump’s impressions from his meeting with Kim in Singapore. At the press conference following his discussions with Kim, Trump said, “[North Korea] is a great place. Has the potential to be an incredible place between South Korea and China. That has tremendous potential. I think he [Kim Jong-un] understands that.” His later comments suggest that when Trump says “tremendous potential” he is talking about economic potential defined terms of national gains (rather than gains across many/all individual citizens): “There’s no limit to what North Korea can achieve when it gives up its nuclear weapons and embraces commerce and engagement with the rest of the world. It really wants to engage.”30 In other words, the engagement of which Trump speaks is commercial engagement. Trump views this as an opening up to outside investment the way he sees development—as real estate opportunities for leisure. “They have great beaches. You see that whenever they are exploding the cannons in the ocean. I said look at that view. That would make a great condo,” he said. “Think of it from the real estate prospective.”31

Moreover, Trump’s meeting with Kim showed he was more willing to move North Korea out of the “enemy” category than in protecting the traditional terms of friendship with his allies in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. As numerous analysts have pointed out, the Singapore statement is short on details about the timeline and process of North Korea’s denuclearization, particularly in terms of verification.32 Daniel Russel, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs under Obama, wrote that “the joint statement that emerged from the summit is but a diluted version of numerous past aspirational documents put forward by North Korea and its negotiating partners.”33 On the plane ride back to Washington, Trump declared via his Twitter account that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat”34—though only two days later the Trump administration’s own pick for ambassador to South Korea in his Senate confirmation hearing stated North Korea still presents a nuclear threat.35

The issue of verification has been a perennial sticking point in negotiations with North Korea. As mentioned earlier, the issue of IAEA inspectors’ oversight was met with stubborn resistance by North Korea. After an inconclusive round of Six-Party Talks in December 2006, the United States and North Korea held bilateral talks the following month and outlined a deal, which was formalized in the Six-Party agreement in February 2007 in which North Korea agreed to dismantle its Yonbyon facilities in return for one million tons of heavy fuel aid and removal from the US terrorism list.36 But the sluggish implementation of the agreement eventually crumbled as North Korea refused to accept verification of its declaration. While these details are expected to be a part of follow-on discussions between mid- and high-level officials, the vagueness of the statement particularly in terms of timing and verification process allows for possible misunderstanding and defection from the agreement at each leader’s will.

Also notably, Trump has left off the issues of domestic governance and international rules/norms adherence in talking about North Korea—something which, to a greater or lesser degree, found a place on the outlooks for both his progressive and conservative predecessors. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all worked to include North Korean human rights abuses, poor governance practices, and low levels of development and high levels of starvation on their agenda for North Korea. The US State Department has regularly folded international investigations human rights issues, such as the 2014 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea37, into their items for discussion with and about Pyongyang. US officials have repeatedly recognized human rights as part of the security challenges presented by North Korea.38 Less than five months ago, even President Trump in his 2018 State of the Union address related the story of a North Korean defector and cited “the depraved character of the North Korean regime” as a way “to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”39

However, it is worth noting that even robust, repeated, and prolonged dialogues with North Korea—bilateral or multilateral—have not been able to rein in its nuclear advancement. At the least, the summit was significant by the very form of the meeting and has the potential to recalibrate the dial on the US-DPRK leg of the relationship. Trump, for his part, can for the moment declare a foreign policy “win” in line with his earlier belief that the most severe sanctions ever placed against North Korea along with threatening military action would draw North Korea to the negotiating table.40 However, Trump’s unpredictability has already drawn out anxious and dubious responses from Seoul, and foreshadow some military and political challenges for the alliance.

Military Implications of the Summit for the Alliance

There were two notable and surprising outcomes of the summit that pertain to US-ROK military coordination and cooperation. First, use of the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—language preferred by Pyongyang more than Washington—is surprising since it suggests US withdrawal of South Korea from its nuclear umbrella. Terence Roehrig argues that the United States has struggled to make its nuclear threat credible: it was useful in East Asia during the Cold War when it helped offset the large Chinese and North Korean militaries but has lost its usefulness as more refined conventional options have been able to achieve the same strategic ends. But Roehrig also points out that “the nuclear umbrella is an important political signal that reflects and helps buttress the overall health of the alliances.”41 While the meaning of the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” remains ambiguous and will be clarified in follow-on negotiations, its inclusion in the Singapore Statement throws uncertainty on the deterrence resolve of the United States in its alliance with South Korea.

The statement is also inconsistent with Trump’s earlier statements on allies acquiring nuclear capabilities: Trump has indicated he would support South Korean and Japanese development of its own nuclear weapons capability.42 But it’s hard not to view the phrase as a concession to North Korea’s interests, particularly given North Korea’s repeated and longstanding calls to draw South Korea out of the US nuclear umbrella.43 In fact, because North Korea sees itself as the government of the entire peninsula, Pyongyang might frame its nuclear deterrent as a “Unification Umbrella,” extending through South Korea without Seoul’s consent, as a protection from coercive threats from powerful neighbors like the United States and Japan.44 Thus the shift in US rhetoric toward the role of nuclear deterrence on the peninsula likewise unsettles the balance and leaves many questions about the strategic end-game.

Second, Trump’s remarks to reporters following his discussions with Kim that he would suspend joint US-ROK military exercises left many in Seoul and Washington scratching their heads. On the one hand, Trump’s suspension of the drills might be expected, given his long-voiced concern in the costliness of US military investments abroad. During his campaign, he was vocal on his willingness to withdraw US forces from countries like South Korea and Japan if they were not paying their share of the costs.45 But following in his remarks following the summit, Trump indicated that he would halt the exercises—which he described as “war games,” the word used by North Koreans that is balked at by Seoul and Washington. He also used words like “provocative”, drawing again from North Korean description. For Trump, the bottom line is that these drills are costly—consistent with his foreign policy priorities, as described above—and stopping the drills will “save us a tremendous amount of money.”46 The announcement was not planned and seems to have caught the Pentagon and Seoul off guard. In Washington, Pence tried to console the Pentagon and Congress that large “war games” would cease but routine military exercises would continue.47 In Seoul, after Trump’s remarks the spokesperson for the President’s Office said they wanted “to figure out the exact meaning and intention of President Trump’s remarks.”48

Trump’s decision was even more unsettling because it appeared that he was “giving away” one of North Korea’s major complaints about the US-ROK alliance without anything in return. The United States has historically offered to reduce or cease military exercises only after demonstrated and verified nuclear dismantlement has occurred. Military officials have long held that the drills are essential for readiness in case of North Korean provocation or attack and that ceasing them signals a potential weakness in the alliance.49

Political Implications of the Summit for the Alliance

In addition to military concerns, Trump’s shift of US approach toward North Korea is significant because it changes the nature of the ROK-DPRK-US triangle by warming up the previously frosty leg, at least temporarily. Moon has thus far been able to placate Trump’s sensitivities and personality, even going so far as to suggest that Trump should win a Nobel Peace Prize for engaging with North Korea even prior to the summit with Kim.50 Following the Singapore summit, Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom in a press briefing explained that “We believe there is a need to consider various ways to further promote dialogue as long as serious discussions are being held between the United States and North Korea for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and establishment of peace.”51 Newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Seoul for a trilateral meeting with South Korea and Japan immediately following the US-DPRK summit, recognized the efforts of South Korea. Prior to his meeting with Moon, Pompeo said, “The summits that you had helped to set the course, set the foundation for the opportunity for President Trump and Chairman Kim to meet.”52

However, Trump’s noteworthy capriciousness on his policy decisions makes the triangle relationship something that requires prolonged and intense attention. Significant issues relating to the Singapore Statement aside,53 the novelty in Trump’s about-face on North Korea is a new factor that the US-ROK alliance needs to manage. Officials in Seoul as well as Washington are understandably anxious about the coming months, because the long process of negotiating the terms of denuclearization—much less actually effectively and verifiably carrying it out—requires immense political will and patience, something for which the Trump administration is not known. This unpredictability casts a long and gloomy shadow over the US-ROK relationship; Moon has placed many delicate eggs in the new strategic triangle basket, and Trump is a hammer that can crack one or shatter them all. From Trump’s decisions on the Iran Deal to his dealings with allies and friends at the G7 just prior to the Singapore summit show his potential to unsettle complicated or longstanding international efforts with one offhand remark to reporters.

Second, Trump’s incredible praise for Kim Jong-un will be poorly received in Seoul. Trump called Kim “very honorable”—a far cry from his patronizing and oft-used “little rocket man” moniker and threats to unleash on North Korea “fire and fury… which the world has never seen” 54 less than one year ago. As discussed above, South Korea and North Korea have for over sixty years been waging a battle for legitimacy and recognition by the international community, and Seoul has viewed US support of South Korea as a major testament to its own development, governance, and capability potential. In the Trumpian era, however, US commitment to human rights and democracy promotion is brought into question. Since the end of the Cold War and the victory of a US-led liberal democratic order, South Korea has worked extremely hard to improve its standing in the international community as it consolidated its democracy post-1987. US support of South Korea has often been paired with censure of North Korean leadership and governance record.55 Now, Trump’s favorable remarks toward authoritarian rulers like Kim, Vladimir Putin, and others suggest the United States is falling behind on its commitment to advocating human rights and governance issues. The change is corroborated by US moves to leave the UN Human Rights Council in mid-June; US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley cited council inconsistencies in censure and an anti-Israel bias,56 but the move is expected to have broader consequences in US dealings with negotiating partners that have a mixed or poor human rights record.

Finally, the broad US and South Korean commitments to working on a Peace Treaty will face formidable challenges in the coming months. Moon suggested the peace agreement could be signed by the end of the year, but the complex political process that will also involve China and the United States—as signatories to the 1953 armistice agreement—leave a lot of political as well as technical questions. North Korea has long sought for Washington specifically to recognize it as a nuclear weapons state, which Trump effectively did in the summit. Moreover, Pyongyang has described the root problem that necessitates its nuclear weapons development and increasing force posture as US “hostile policy.”57 In James Przystup’s analysis, Pyongyang’s view of the first step is to complete a peace treaty, “dismissing decades of mutual mistrust, suspicion, and enmity.”58 The rhetorical commitments between Moon and Kim in April 2018 and then Trump and Kim in June 2018 to a peace treaty has already drawn disapproval from many conservatives and North Korea-hardliners in South Korea. Given Moon’s unprecedented high approval rating, though, and general support for his work with North Korea,59 the administration may likely be able to take a political hit.

The effect of the treaty on the US-ROK relationship, however, is susceptible to the differences in opinion toward North Korea’s leadership as described above. And as the negotiation process unfolds, differences in what the United States and South Korea are willing to “trade away” in order to make agreement on a treaty will cause friction in the alliance. Trump has already made (rhetorical) concessions to North Korea during and immediately after the summit, and mainline South Korean diplomats may not be as willing to concede to Kim’s demands. Moreover, in the past, prolonged talks on denuclearization, confidence-building measures and arms reduction, and a peace treaty with North Korea have been difficult and ultimately fell apart, and Trump’s short attention span and the administration’s expectations for rapid change make the already tricky process even more difficult.60 Landing in Washington following his meeting, Trump claimed that North Korea was no longer a threat61—a claim which many felt was not only premature given the vagueness of the Singapore Statement but also inappropriate. Should the Trump administration feel the process is not going as quickly as (unfairly) expected, the United States may put pressure on Pyongyang, Seoul, or both, and possibly defect from negotiations. Any of these changes would put stain on the US-ROK alliance.


In the previous decade, the US-ROK alliance had prioritized strengthening the alliance at the expense of efforts to engage with North Korea. While Trump’s unpredictability raises questions about the lasting effect of the change in US-DPRK relations, we can say that for the moment the terms of the US-ROK-DPRK triangle have shifted, giving each country a new balance point against which to measure future interactions. However, given Trump’s unconventional and even questionable foreign policy priorities, his abnormal leadership is a wavering factor that could disrupt the triangle again. Thus far that disruption has made the three legs of the strategic triangle warm up, but the power of Trump to disrupt that triangle could just as rapidly shift any of the legs of the triangle in the coming months. Officials in Washington and Seoul will need to work hard to ensure the political will necessary for the upcoming negotiations.

1. In its classic formulation, the triangle relationship theory describes the patterns of interaction in cases of strategic alignment and coalition-building, where two weaker parties join together as a way to counteract a stronger third party. As work on security triangles demonstrates, dyads themselves can be destabilized or strengthened by the actions of a third party; in other words, the interdependence of each bilateral relationship means that each leg of the “strategic triangle” affects the other leg.  Lowell Dittmer, “The Strategic Triangle: An Elementary Game-Theoretical Analysis.” World Politics, Vol. 33, No. 4 (1981), pp. 485-515. See also Paul Poast, “Dyads are Dead, Love Live Dyads! The Limits of Dyadic Designs in International Relations,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 2 (2016).

2. Benjamin Habib, “US-North Korea Summit Agreement is Most Revealing for What It Leaves Out,” The Conversation, June 12, 2018,

3. Darcie Draudt, “The Art of the North Korean Deal,” China-US Focus, May 2, 2018,

4. Scott Snyder, South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

5. G.R. Berriedge and Nadia Gallo, “The Role of the Diplomatic Corps: The US-North Korea Talks in Beijing, 1988-94,” in Innovation in Diplomatic Practice, Jan Melissen ed. (London: Macmillan, 1999):  p. 214-230. Also, Joel Wit. “The United States and North Korea,” Brookings Policy Brief, No. 73, March 2001,

6. Emma Chanlett-Avery and Mi Ae Taylor. “North Korea: US Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation,” Congressional Research Service, May 26, 2010, p. 3,

7. Michael J. Mazarr, North Korea and the Bomb: A Case Study in Nonproliferation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

8. Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation Between South and North (“Basic Agreement”). Signed December 13, 1991. Effective February 19, 1992,

9. “Report on Plenary Meeting of WPK Central Committee,” KCNA, March 31, 2013,

10. “S. Korean Authorities Accused of Fully Opening Minutes of Inter-Korean Summit to Public,”  KCNA, June 27, 2013,

11. Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., and Jack Liu, “North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site: Satellite Imagery Shows Post-Test Effects and New Activity in Alternate Tunnel Portal Areas,”38 North, September 12, 2017,

12. Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korea Plans ‘Decapitation Unit’ to Try to Scare North’s Leaders,” The New York Times, September 12, 2017,

13. Lee Chi-dong and Song Sang-ho, “THAAD System Deployment Completed: S. Korea,” Yonhap News Agency, September 7, 2017,

14. “South-North Korea Olympic Issue, Unification Time Perception (in Korean),” Gallup Korea Daily Opinion No. 295 (Fourth Week of February 2018), Febrary 23, 2018,

15. Yoon Seul-gi, “Kim Jong-un Invites President Moon to Pyongyang Soon; Moon Says Certain Conditions Must Be Made (in Korean),” Maeil Ilbo, February 10, 2018,

16. Josh Rogin, “Pence: The United States is Ready to Talk with North Korea,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2018,

17. Elise Hu, “South Korean Officials Meet Kim Jong-un to Pave the Way for US Talks,” NPR, March 5, 2018,

18. Seong Yeon-cheol and Kim Ji-eun, “South Korea Special Envoys Arrive in US to Share Results of Meeting with Kim Jong-un,” Hankyoreh, March 8, 2018,

19. Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Agression, and Exchanges and Cooperation Between South and North. (“Basic Agreement”). Signed December 13, 1991. Effective February 19, 1992.

20. Scott Snyder, “Peace Talk at Panmunjom: New Opening or Déjà vu?” Asia Unbound, April 27, 2018,

21. Ankit Panda, “North Korea Cancels High-Level Inter-Korean Meeting, Threatens US Summit Cancellation, Over US-ROK Exercises,” The Diplomat, May 16, 2018,

22. “North Korea’s Full Statement on Meeting with Trump,” The New York Times, May 15, 2018,

23. Shannon Van Sant, “Why Was Singapore Chosen to Host the Summit?” NPR, June 12, 2018,

24. Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch,’” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018,

25. Salman Ahmed and Alexander Bick. “Trump’s National Security Strategy: A New Brand of Mercantilism?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 17, 2017.

26. “Trump Says US to Quit TPP on First Day in Office,” BBC News, November 22, 2016,

27. Ana Swanson, “White House to Impose Metal Tariffs on EU, Canada and Mexico,” The New York Times, May 31, 2018,

28. “Trump Says Working with Abe to Improve US-Japan Trade Relations,” Reuters, June 7, 2018,

29. Darcie Draudt, “Security Hot, Economics Cold at Trump-Moon Summit,” East Asia Forum, July 14, 2017,

30. Jennifer Williams, “Full Transcript of Trump’s North Korea Summit Press Conference,” Vox, June 12, 2018,

31. Ibid.

32. Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda, “North Korea is a Nuclear Power. Get Used to It,” The New York Times, June 12, 2018,

33. Daniel R. Russel, “A Historic Breakthrough or a Historic Blunder in Singapore?” Foreign Affairs, June 12, 2018,

34. Donald Trump, Twitter post, June 13, 2018, 2:56am,

35. Nicole Gaouette, “Trump Pick for South Korea Ambassador Says North Korea Remains a Nuclear Threat,” CNN, June 14, 2018,

36. “North Korea – Denuclearization Action Plan,” Statement by President Bush on Six Party Talks, at Office of the Spokesman at the US Department of State, February 13, 2007,

37. UN Human Rights Council, 25th Session, “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” A/HRC/25/63, New York, 2014.

38. Danielle Chubb and Andrew Yeo, “Human Rights Missing in Trump-Kim Summit,” at the Lowy Institute Interpreter, June 14, 2018,

39. Donald J. Trump, “State of the Union Address,” January 30, 2018,

40. Walter Russell Mead, “Kim Yo Jong’s Shattered Olympic Dream,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2018,

41. Roehrig, Terence. Japan, South Korea, and the United States Nuclear Umbrella. New York: Columbia University Press (2017): p. 156.

42. Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “Highlights from Our Interview with Donald Trump on Foreign Policy,” The New York Times, March 17, 2016,
“DPRK’s Party Organ Claims South Koreans Desire ‘Nuclear Umbrella of Nation,” Rodong Shinmun, [Korean, transl. Uriminzokkiri Internet], August 16, 2007.

43. “DPRK’s Party Organ Claims South Koreans Desire ‘Nuclear Umbrella of Nation,” Rodong Shinmun, [Korean, transl. Uriminzokkiri Internet], August 16, 2007.

44. Scobell, Andrew and John M. Sanford. “North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles.” Strategic Studies Institute (1997): 90.

45. Haberman and Sanger, “Highlights from Our Interview with Donald Trump on Foreign Policy.”

46. “Press Conference Remarks at Capella Hotel, Sinagpore,” June 12, 2018,

47. Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon and Seoul Surprised by Trump Pledge to Halt Military Exercises, The New York Times, June 12, 2018,

48. Sarah Kim, “Trump Promises to Halt ‘War Games’ but Offers Few Details,” JoongAng Daily, June 14, 2018,

49. David S. Cloud, “Trump’s decision to halt military exercises with South Korea leaves Pentagon and allies nervous,” Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2018,

50. Elise Hu, “Trump Should Win the Nobel Peace Prize, South Korea’s Moon Says,” NPR, April 30, 2018,

51. “Seoul Hints at Possible Suspension of Joint Military Drills with US,” Yonhap, June 13, 2018,

52. “Remarks with Korean President Moon Jae-in Before their Meeting,” June 14, 2018,

53. “What Would Denuclearization Look Like in North Korea,Interview at with Melissa Hanham by Eleanor Albert, May 30, 2018,

54. Emily Tamkin, “Trump Threatens North Korea with ‘Fire and Fury the World Has Never Seen,’” Foreign Policy, August 8, 2017,

55. For example, see “Remarks at Seoul National University,” October 28, 2016,

56. Colin Dwyer, “US Announces Its Withdrawal From UN Human Rights Council,” NPR, June 19, 2018,

57. John Delury, “The Disappointments of Disengagement: Assessing Obama’s North Korea Policy.” Asian Perspective, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2013).                                                             

58. Pryzstup, James J. “Has Strategic Patience Run Its Course?” Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet No. 46, August 25, 2011.

59. “South-North Korea Olympic Issue, Unification Time Perception (in Korean),” Gallup Korea Daily Opinion No. 295.

60. Nick Wadhams, “Pompeo Sees North Korean Denuclearization in Trump’s First Term,” Bloomberg News, June 13, 2018,

61. Donald Trump, Twitter post, June 13, 2018, 3:01am,