It is tempting to presume that the return of Donald Trump to the White House in 2025 would revive the bromance between Trump and Kim Jong Un and spark renewed tensions within the U.S.-South Korea alliance over the level of South Korean contributions to support the U.S. troop presence. But while in office, Trump showed that he values political flexibility and prioritizes moves that return immediate tactical political advantages. If Trump were to win the 2024 U.S. presidential election, he would face at least three new realities that might lead to outcomes different from those achieved during the first Trump administration.
First, the presence of the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration rather than the progressive Moon Jae-in administration that served as the United States’ counterpart in South Korea during Trump’s first term would raise the costs of rapprochement with North Korea. Instead of Moon’s pursuit of dialogue and partnership with Kim, Yoon would be counseling Trump to pursue deterrence against North Korea’s ever-expanding threat. No longer would the South Korean president be a cheerleader for improvements in relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Instead, the Yoon administration would likely oppose efforts by Trump to restore dialogue channels without insisting that North Korea first signal its commitment to denuclearization and would likely not be an intermediary in such efforts.
Second, Kim Jong Un may no longer perceive a need to engage with Trump now that he has stronger backing from Vladimir Putin and support from China in opposition to U.S.-led economic sanctions. Having faced the humiliation of the failed February 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Kim may determine that it is necessary to establish that North Korea has the upper hand over a weak Trump by demonstrating expanded North Korean capabilities. Doing so would drive up the asking price for renewed U.S.-North Korean summitry to levels that Trump would be unable to afford. The result might be a return to a rhetorical escalation of tensions between the American “Dotard” and the North Korean “Rocket Man” and the accompanying risks of direct conflict.
Third, the combination of South Korean anxieties about the implications of Trump’s return for the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence and Trump’s prior statements regarding the permissibility of South Korea pursuing a nuclear weapons capability might tempt South Korea to pursue nuclear parity with North Korea, but this course would likely come at a cost of a strong U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump’s unpredictable leadership would dramatically transform the inter-Korean security dynamic and challenge the U.S. security commitment to South Korea in an unprecedented fashion, with uncertain regional and global security implications.
In sum, rather than presaging a rewind to Trump’s previous policies toward North and South Korea, new geopolitical circumstances resulting from growing U.S.-China rivalry would generate unpredictable outcomes. But the foreign policy of a second Trump administration would still be rooted in Trump’s transactional focus on using immediate events to generate political benefits, regardless of past precedent.
The article was originally published on The National Interest.