Trump and North Korea: What’s Next for this Unique Relationship?

The war of words between the US and North Korea is starting to escalate as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called Donald Trump “a heedless and erratic old man.” This remark was a reaction to the President’s statement on Sunday that the North Korean leader could void their “special relationship” amid reports that Pyongyang conducted an important test at the Sohae Satellite Ground. But Trump believes that Kim Jong Un is “smart’, but that he has “everything to lose if he acts in a hostile way.”

Both leaders agreed to work towards a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula during their first summit in June 2018, but they failed to describe how that would occur. Nuclear talks stalled in February after the pair’s second summit in Singapore collapsed when Trump rejected North Korea’s request for sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear programme. With both leaders deploying rhetoric reminiscent of 2017 when the President described his North Korean counterpart as “rocket-man”, it is unclear how Washington intends to make progress on this issue.

Fortunately, Trump no longer has to depend upon the advice of former national security adviser John Bolton, who always suggested that the President demand that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) surrender their nuclear arsenal within one year. That was never going to be a realistic proposition without the US offering something substantial in return, which is what the DPRK’s First Vice Foreign Minister, Choe Son Hui, alluded to in September. Pyongyang believes that it needs its nuclear weapons so that it can be taken seriously as a superpower.

It is time for the Trump administration to start offering the DPRK concessions if it is serious about them surrendering their nuclear deterrent in the long-term. As the National Interest argues, Washington could lift the ban on Americans visiting North Korea and vice versa. They could also encourage individuals and organisations like NGOs to establish relationships.

Trump should have taken Kim’s offer to relax sanctions seriously in February because this could promote inter-Korean collaboration, especially if this was accompanied by a peace treaty that removes US troops from South Korea whilst recognising the latter’s right to defend itself. This can then initiate the Trump administration into scheduling deals that could lead to full denuclearisation by ending the DPRK’s short and long-range missile tests.

If Trump wants to exercise more leverage in his negotiations with Pyongyang, he needs to bolster America’s defences. For example, he could add more sites at Fort Greely that would leave the US better protected if there ever was a missile attack from the Korean Peninsula.

Even if the President is not able to achieve everything he wants from his dealings with North Korea, if he can succeed in cutting the number of nuclear weapons Pyongyang possesses, it is better than nothing. He would have made more progress on this issue than his predecessors did.

But North Korea is fast becoming an electoral issue ahead of next year’s presidential poll. Although he has been bold enough to meet Kim Jong Un face-to-face, his current record of achieving full denuclearisation is no different to those of his predecessors. This is making the President an easy target for all of his potential Democratic rivals who have lambasted him for his ‘photo op’ diplomacy, even though they all have vague positions on the DPRK themselves. Nonetheless, the Biden campaign has taken advantage of the Trump administration’s ‘weak’ foreign policy by claiming it will put American security at the heart of discussions with the DPRK whilst the current President engages with ‘repugnant dictators.’

With talks breaking down between both sides, Trump needs to strike a deal with Kim Jong Un, and fast. If he fails to do so, his opponents will no doubt seize upon his vulnerability in this area during next year’s election and the President will be no different to his predecessors on this matter, although he promised he would be.