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US-North Korea: Will We See The Dawn of A New Era Under Trump?

Will isolation and sanctions be replaced by engagement?

16/01/2017 3:12 PM IST | Updated 17/01/2017 4:57 PM IST
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North Korea's so-called posturing, especially with the threats doled out by its leader Kim Jong-un as part of his New Year address is a display of the uncertainty that is to come in the region. The flames of this uncertainty have been further fuelled by the claims made by the incoming Trump administration on South Korea and Japan and the development of their own nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration has failed to rein in North Korea's nuclear programme. Efforts by the international community to engage with Pyongyang began and ended with the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Obama's policy of "strategic patience" has hit a road block especially in the case of deterring North Korea. In fact, it has overseen the rapid development of both its nuclear and ballistic missile program. The imposition of UN and US-driven sanctions that were in fact aimed at deterring North Korea, in reality has spearheaded their program. With the new US administration set to take over, some form of engagement between North Korea and the US is a possibility.

Trump's willingness to meet face-to-face with Kim Jong-un to discuss the possibility of reaching an agreement shook the international community as well as US regional allies.

Has Donald Trump signalled a new era in US-North Korea relations—from one of isolation coupled with sanctions to one of engagement? This is very much in line with what President Obama had hoped for? However, the reality is a whole new different matter. The question is whether Trump will be successful. The carrot and stick policy of the previous administrations has proven futile; Trump has the opportunity to inject new vigour in the process by wiping the slate clean. But is it even possible?

Trump's willingness to meet face-to-face with Kim Jong-un to discuss the possibility of reaching an agreement shook the international community as well as US regional allies. His various statements on North Korea—which blow hot and cold—have been vague in the manner in which this will be achieved. However, it signals a setting aside of the "six-party talks" scheme that did not achieve much and which broke down in 2008.

The face-to-face engagement that Trump is inching towards is more about cutting out the middleman i.e. China (North Korea's main ally) as well as other countries who have had strained relations with Pyongyang, particularly South Korea and Japan. These US allies complicate the situation by injecting historical baggage into the mix. The new face-to-face policy has its advantages as well as its pitfalls.

In this new policy orientation, it is to be seen whether the Washington establishment will allow the President to make such a move or will it be more along the lines of the Obama-Iran tactics. North Korea has been sidelined from the national security agenda for far too long, and the Trump administration has a chance to bring it forward to the negotiating table.

However, in doing so Trump will have to walk a tightrope given the anxiety among US regional allies. During the Obama administration, a conscious effort was made towards "regional engagement"—essentially expanding ties with Japan, South Korea, South Asian countries etc. The Obama administration also aimed at using China to rein in North Korea. This has not worked and China is increasingly showing a lessening desire and ability to change Pyongyang's policy. Here is where Trump's one-to-one policy could prove workable. On the other hand there are the two main US regional allies; Japan and South Korea who have the most to gain and lose if the situation were to go either way. The leadership within both countries may not be too keen to see the US directly engaging with North Korea for fear of a backlash to Trump's statements regarding South Korea and Japan's defence.

How will Trump deal with the increasing number of tests conducted by Pyongyang? Face-to-face negotiations could create further problems for the US if not handled appropriately.


The Kim regime has been shown a positive sign in Trump's willingness to negotiate. However if Trump were to go down this path he would be risking a great deal in terms of domestic as well as allied support. But it rests on the support of the allies—how willing are South Korea and Japan to support the US in its policy towards North Korea?

In analysing the feasibility of Trump's statements there are a number of aspects to be considered: what lengths will he be willing to go to in order to bring North Korea to the negotiating table? Will he really be willing to alleviate some sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang coming to the negotiating table? How will Trump deal with the increasing number of tests conducted by Pyongyang? Face-to-face negotiations could create further problems for the US if not handled appropriately.

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