Home » Trump Considers Overhauling His Approach to North Korea if He Wins in 2024

Trump Considers Overhauling His Approach to North Korea if He Wins in 2024

The idea, which has been considered in other forms during years of U.S.-led negotiations with North Korea, would be a shift in Washington’s overall approach to Pyongyang.

The idea, which has been considered in other forms during years of U.S.-led negotiations with North Korea, would be a shift in Washington’s overall approach to Pyongyang.

While American presidents of both parties have largely despaired of persuading North Korea to relinquish its atomic arsenal, U.S. policy has continued to call for denuclearization of the Communist fortress state.

Trump, however, may be prepared to give up on even attempting to convince Kim to dismantle his country’s nuclear weapons if he wins another term in 2024. At least part of his motivation, the people said, would be to avoid wasting time on what he sees as futile arms talks — and focus instead on the larger task of competing with China.

Trump, one of the people said, is highly motivated to get an agreement with North Korea. “He knows he wants a deal,” this person said of Trump. “What type of deal? I don’t think he has thought that through.”

One of the ideas Trump is weighing, according to the people briefed on it, would involve enticing North Korea to freeze its nuclear program and stop developing new weapons, in exchange for relief from economic sanctions and some other form of aid. It would also require the creation of a verification to ensure North Korea keeps its word, the people said.

All three individuals, like others in this story, were granted anonymity to speak freely about the president’s thinking.

It is possible that Trump could still pursue denuclearization as a long-term goal, but it would be a departure from standard U.S. policy to strike even a near-term deal with North Korea that doesn’t state that explicitly.

Prior administrations, from both American political parties, have sought to pause Pyongyang’s weapons development with the goal of eventually convincing North Korea to shed its pariah status by abandoning nuclear arms. They have offered incentives to North Korea aimed at achieving such a pause, from food aid to sanctions relief to fuel oil.

But in all previous cases, American administrations have emphasized that stopping the creation of new weapons was merely an interim step in the direction of full denuclearization.

Trump’s first-term policy on North Korea was “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” And his initial approach was very hardline — he once considered dropping a nuclear weapon on North Korea and blaming its use on another country.

After multiple personal engagements, Trump said he and Kim “fell in love,” sending letters to one another and remaining on good terms. But that goodwill did not translate into an agreement — save for a temporary missile-testing pause — and North Korea’s program has only advanced since.

If Trump softens his approach, it could rattle allies like South Korea and Japan and unnerve members of his own party who prefer a tougher approach toward Pyongyang. It would also open the former president to criticisms of hypocrisy, as he consistently bashed the Obama administration for relieving Iran’s economic woes in exchange for reversing its advance toward a first nuclear weapon. Trump, as president, withdrew the U.S. from the Barack Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.

The Trump campaign denies that he has changed his stance toward North Korea in any way. “These ‘sources’ have no idea what they are talking about and do not speak for President Trump or his campaign,” said spokesperson Steven Cheung.

Trump’s conversations on a North Korea strategy also signal that the former president is confident in his frontrunner status for the Republican nomination and has set his sights on issues that excited him as president.

North Korea has not been a hot-button campaign issue — China, Israel-Hamas and Ukraine suck up all the oxygen — but Trump’s coziness with Kim has served as the occasional punchline for his 2024 rivals.

“Neither Joe Biden’s weakness nor Donald Trump’s friendliness to Kim have changed North Korea’s direction for the better. These dictators only understand strength,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, said in September.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, responding in September to reports of Russia potentially giving North Korea high-tech nuclear technologies in exchange for conventional weapons, said the U.S. had “to keep Kim Jong Un in a box … and to keep the pressure on.”

Trump often calls or summons people in his orbit to muse on his legal woes, the state of the economy, foreign policy or whatever he’s thinking about, said two other people who know how the president operates. Sometimes he’s prompted by coverage of an issue on cable news either to know more about it or simply offer his thoughts on the subject, they added.

Trump became obsessed with North Korea after Pyongyang launched its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017. He threatened to go to nuclear war to stop Kim from developing his program, and Kim threatened his own attacks unless the U.S. backed off.

Those tensions — highlighted by Trump calling Kim “Little Rocket Man” — turned into a historic personal diplomacy endeavor over the prospect of North Korea dismantling its arsenal, with Kim during a summit in Hanoi offering only a small concession while Trump wanted a bigger deal. The former president remained interested in the North Korea problem for the rest of his presidency and is still talking and thinking about it at Mar-a-Lago.

The reduction in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea during the Trump years changed how Americans perceived the so-called “Hermit Kingdom.” In 2018, 51 percent said North Korea was the greatest U.S. enemy. The following year, that number plummeted to 14 percent, according to Gallup.

Trump’s latest thinking on Pyongyang is far from novel in the history of U.S.-North Korea relations.

“This sounds remarkably similar to other things we’ve tried since the early 1990s,” said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, formerly the Pentagon’s top Asia official from 2009 to 2011. “It sounds good, it’s a great talking point. Been there, done that, and it hasn’t worked.”

North Korea has shown remarkable skill at keeping its nuclear development away from prying eyes. In 2010, for example, scientists in the country showed American analysts they had a uranium enrichment program, including two halls filled with 2,000 centrifuges.

“I was stunned by the sight,” Siegfried Hecker, a prominent American scientist on the 2010 visit to North Korea, said after his return.

Trump’s leaning that Pyongyang might not part with its nuclear weapons tracks with the long-held intelligence community assessment that no North Korean leader would abandon such weapons that they feel help keep the regime in place. Trump may decide down the line to push for North Korea’s denuclearization, but at the start that won’t be his explicit goal, and will instead seek more modest aims.

The next administration doesn’t start for more than a year and a lot can change in U.S.-North Korea relations — and the world — before then. Trump’s thinking could also evolve, based on discussions he has with confidants and advisers.

Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, sees his nuclear weapons as the guarantor of his rule, deterring countries like South Korea or the United States from launching an invasion to dethrone him. After a year of threatening nuclear war against one another, Trump and Kim engaged in historic leader-to-leader diplomacy that ultimately didn’t result in North Korea’s denuclearization.

Ever since, Kim has embarked on an advancement of his weapons program, earlier this year displaying the largest-ever number of nuclear missiles during a nighttime parade. North Korea would “exponentially increase” its arsenal, he said in January.

Biden administration officials have repeatedly offered to negotiate with North Korea without preconditions, but Pyongyang has offered nothing but silence. President Joe Biden, then, has moved closer to allies Japan and South Korea, ensuring they’re more coordinated and aligned on the North Korea issue as well as China and broader Indo-Pacific concerns.

Some analysts suggest that Trump’s current thinking might be a way to break the stalemate. “A proposal that freezes North Korea’s program while not denuclearizing completely in the near or medium term might be a more realistic approach given the current situation,” said Frank Aum, a Northeast Asia expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “That might be the only way forward.”

But Aum and others noted there were clear risks to Trump’s current inclination, the biggest one being that South Korea seeks nuclear weapons of its own. The country’s conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, earlier this year suggested that Seoul might pursue the bomb if the North Korea threat grew further. That would raise the prospect of a nuclear arms race in Asia just as the U.S. is hoping to limit China’s own development.

Pressure against the Trump policy would almost certainly mount in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. Lawmakers, including Republicans friendly to Trump, would likely advise him to reverse course, in part because North Korea is aiding Russia in its war against Ukraine. There would also be overarching questions about America’s commitment to non-proliferation if the U.S., at least for a time, effectively approved of North Korea’s nuclear attainment.

There are also many unknowns, namely how Kim would react to such a proposal, the specific details of how to ensure North Korea’s program remains untouched or how Beijing, Pyongyang’s closest partner, would react to all of this. But one thing many are sure of is that the prospect of North Korea dismantling its arsenal shrinks with each passing day.

“North Korea has made it clear it’s not accepting any limitation on its program,” said Sydney Seiler, a former national intelligence officer for North Korea. “They say they’ll denuclearize only when the world denuclearizes.”

Source : Politico

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