Dressed in a finely-tailored suit and ensconced in his plush personal library, Kim Jong-un made the business of wooing Donald J. Trump a main theme of his New Year’s address, setting the tone of North Korea’s objectives for 2019. With pledges of no more nuclear and missile testing and not a desk in sight (presumably to ensure that the nuclear button on that desk remained far from anyone’s mind), Kim reminisced about Singapore and referenced his 2018 conquest of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in as evidence of how things could be, if only Kim and Trump would find their way into one another’s hearts once more.
President Trump reciprocated Kim’s sweet nothings by tweeting: “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential.” Later that day, Trump declared that “we really have established a very good relationship.”
Of course, Kim knows full well that the United States and South Korea are in a stable alliance marriage, and that to lure Trump away he must displace Moon. The first step was to convince Moon that Kim truly wanted to mend his ways, join the world, and accept Moon’s proposal to restore an economic and political union with South Korea. But, Kim has continued to insist that to expand the inter-Korean relationship, there can be no further military interference from foreign forces such as the United States. Kim may be trying to coax the United States and South Korea into an open marriage, but joint exercises are more than he can abide.
Kim is counting on both Trump’s wandering eye and the accumulated burdens of the institution of marriage as he attempts to woo Trump over to his side. Trump has complained that the costs of marital obligation characteristic of alliances are too high. He argues that South Korea has taken advantage of U.S. military largesse by not sufficiently financing U.S. Forces in Korea, and that South Korea should raise its contributions to mutual defense by at least fifty percent—or else.
Kim knows that Trump’s “what have you done for me lately” attitude toward Moon can be exploited and that accumulated grievances between Trump and Moon might even lead to a U.S.-ROK alliance divorce. The situation is all the more tragic because it was Moon who worked so hard to bring Trump and Kim together in the first place, thinking that life would be better if only the “little rocketman” and the “dotard” could learn to get along. Since both Trump and Kim had been so focused on themselves for so long, who knew that each would see something so attractive in the other? Yet it is not clear that replacing the U.S.-South Korea alliance with a dalliance between Trump and Kim would be sustainable, much less that it would reduce the risk of war or the likelihood that either side, once aggrieved, would pursue the nuclear option.
So what next in 2019 for this dramatic Korean love triangle? With some healthy compromise, Moon and Trump should be able use their shared history and mutually-beneficial union to channel Kim’s apparent interest in establishing a peaceful environment for North Korea’s economic growth into an advantageous and hopefully denuclearized end-state. Rather than falling for Kim’s illusory promises by hosting him in Seoul or setting up another Trump-Kim dalliance in a third country, Moon and Trump must engage in a heart-to-heart of their own to resolve urgent differences and get on the same page regarding South Korea’s financial contributions to mutual defense. Pro-tip for Moon: throw in an offer for Hyundai construction to build a free wall and the asking price for keeping U.S. forces in Korea should go down dramatically.