WITH the impending inauguration just a few weeks away, focus is starting to turn to what exactly the U.S. presidency will look like under Donald Trump.
With many conflicting messages coming from the Trump team, it can be hard to decipher a clear direction in relation to the key issues facing the administration.
In terms of national security, the most pressing issue is likely North Korea. According to the Wall Street Journal, the outgoing Obama administration warned Trump’s delegation that the nuclear-armed country should be considered the incoming White House team’s top threat.
Given North Korea’s advancing nuclear programme, some experts warn that within four years, Kim Jong-Un may have a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the West Coast of the U.S. And from recent developments, it is clear that the isolated regime is bent on staying on track to achieve this.
In October, a senior North Korean official told NBC News that the country is targeting mainland America with a nuclear weapons programme and it will not halt.
“We will not step back as long as there’s a nuclear threat to us from the United States,” director of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies, Lee Yong Pil, said. “Offence is the best form of defence,” Lee added.
Then in his kick-off message for the new year, Kim himself said his country was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The U.S. labelled the announcement a “provocative” threat but said it doubted North Korea was yet in a position to “tip” one of its missiles with a nuclear warhead.
With such unambiguous threats being directed at the U.S. and its allies, it is crucial that Trump manage to find an effective method to restrain the infamously volatile North Korean leader.
While he is yet to outline a policy stance on the issue, the incoming U.S. president has expressed views on the issue through a number of tweets and interviews in recent months.
Professor John Delury, a specialist at Yonsei University in Seoul in the politics of China, told the BBC that Trump’s “controversial and extreme ideas” questioned “the foundations of U.S. policy towards Korea which have been in place since the Korean war.”
So by placing decades-long policy up for negotiation, what alternative paths are open to the Trump team?
Trump has previously stated that he believes China has “absolute control” over North Korea. And, following his tweets on Monday, it is clear that he believes the Chinese are not utilising this power to exert enough pressure on the closed off nation.
China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
Given this belief, Trump may choose to pursue the route of applying pressure on China to force their hand on North Korea. Most likely this would be achieved by exerting economic pressure administered through a trade war; a tactic he has hinted at repeatedly over his campaign.
Another would be on the global stage, in a challenge to China over Taiwan or its manoeuvres in the South China Sea.
This would prove a risky approach and would likely result in a hugely negative response from the Chinese who already take a highly unfavourable view of America’s preeminent role in Asian affairs.
This also ignores the possibility that China is satisfied with the status quo.
While far from an ideal situation for Beijing, instability in North Korea allows the country to act as a buffer zone between China and the South. With a stable and unified Korea, China faces the prospect of having U.S. troops amassed on their doorstep; a scenario they will be eager to avoid.
To rely solely on China to reign in North Korea’s Kim could prove fruitless.
A likely alternative path would be to continue to build alliances with surrounding nations.
By orchestrating a lasting and strong trilateral alliance with South Korea and Japan, the U.S. will be in a position to convey a clear message to North Korea that any attack in the region will have dire consequences.
The escalating show of force currently being conducted by the U.S. in cooperation with South Korea acts as a reminder to this effect.
The increasingly large military exercises, which include rehearsals for regime change in Pyongyang and the flying of B-1 nuclear bombers off North Korea in September, show that the U.S. is no longer happy sticking to its decades-long policy of “strategic patience” and is willing to act to confront Pyongyang if necessary.
Again, this is a precarious approach. In the past, the North Korean regime has acknowledged that their accelerated programme is due in part to “the increasingly aggressive” drills being carried out by the U.S. and the South.
If the U.S. display of force and unity pushes too far, Pyongyang is more than capable of blitzing the South Korean capital just 50 miles from the border. And given the volatile nature of the leader, an attempt at a further foreign attack would be a strong possibility.
The most diplomatic approach, and the one most utilised at present, is the use of sanctions.
The United Nations’ toughest economic sanctions, however, have not shown any signs of deterring North Korea from developing its nuclear programme. In fact, its most powerful nuclear test to date was conducted just recently on Sept 9, 2016.
Trump could pursue more targeted sanctions in an attempt to bring North Korea to its knees economically and socially, but North Korea has proven hard to punish as they have so little to lose. Given the lack of effectiveness of past measures, you have to wonder what would be the point?
Maybe putting a stop to North Korea’s nuclear programme would have to take something untried thus far.
One such approach would be to meet with the leader himself and open talks; an approach that Trump has implied he will be open to once in power, stating on the campaign trail “what the hell is wrong with speaking?”
While this appeared as an off-the-cuff remark, he has since followed it with statements such as, “That I can tell you. If he came here, I’d accept him.” As well as expressing his desire to eat hamburgers and “make better deals” with Kim.
Many experts believe this could be the way forward. Given Kim’s seemingly positive assessment of the U.S. president-elect, some believe that Trump could be just the wild card president to pull it off. What, though, would come of such a meeting? The answer is almost impossible to predict.
But there’s another untried approach the administration may consider: Accepting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
This unconventional approach could see the U.S. quietly tolerating the programme while managing the consequences.
Throughout his campaign trail, Trump expressed his desire to take a more isolationist approach to global affairs. With a reluctance in the White House to act as the world’s policeman, acceptance of North Korea may be a possibility.
Although highly unlikely given the administration’s talks with South Korea and Trump’s recent Twitter spat on the matter, this could make sense in the long run.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said recently that the goal of getting the North to give up its nuclear programme is “probably a lost cause.”
The remark could not be more true; every effort taken so far to contain the reclusive regime has not only failed to deter Kim but has actually spurred him on.
With the nuclear programme likely going nowhere any time soon, is it time for the newly-elected leader of the free world to accept the inevitable?
The acceptance approach will, however, undoubtedly ruffle feathers around the world. With strict restrictions on nuclear weapons across the globe, accepting the North as a nuclear-armed nation could result in a need to renegotiate new arms controls and initiate nuclear talks with other countries who may want the weapons themselves.
How the Trump team will handle North Korea is yet to be seen, but it is a delicate situation that will require a level of caution and diplomacy that would challenge even the most politically savvy.
Given Trump’s brash approach thus far, it’s difficult to imagine him treading this precarious and treacherous path with the required discretion.