Tag Archive | "leadership transition"

Is Trump Impacting How South Koreans View the United States?

By Kyle Ferrier

Claiming “Korea actually used to be a part of China” and stating “it would be appropriate” if South Korea paid for THAAD are just some of Donald Trump’s comments since his inauguration that have not been well received by the South Korean public. As President Moon Jae-in meets with President Trump this week to discuss new issues as well as longstanding ones such as the North Korea nuclear problem, his flexibility both in Washington and after his return to Seoul depends on public opinion at home. Against this backdrop, the release of two major survey-based reports in the past few days are rather fortunately timed and help to shed light on how South Koreans perceive U.S. political leadership.

The first is the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership: America still wins praise for its people, culture and civil liberties, released on June 26. The second is the Asan Institute’s A New Beginning for ROK-U.S. Relations: South Koreans’ View of the United States and Its Implications, released on June 27. While the Pew report looks at a broader scope of countries and the Asan report focuses solely on the South Korean public, both ultimately provide similar conclusions: South Koreans continue to view the U.S. favorably despite negative views on Trump. However, the two provide conflicting analyses as to whether Trump has already impacted U.S. favorability and how South Koreans view the future of relations with the U.S.

From polls conducted in 37 countries, the Pew study finds that international confidence in the U.S. president has dropped from 64 percent at the end of the Obama presidency to 22 percent at the beginning of Trump’s. South Koreans do not buck the trend. When asked if they have confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs, 88 percent of South Koreans responded positively during the end of the Obama years while only 17 percent expressed the same confidence in Trump — below the global median of 22 percent. Of the 37 countries polled, this 71 percentage point swing was the fourth largest, behind Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. The 78 percent of South Koreans who definitively answered they had no confidence in Trump is the highest among the countries polled in Asia (the others are Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and India) and is above the global median of 74 percent. Further, when asked about Trump’s major policy shifts, 78 percent disapproved of withdrawing from international climate change agreements and 80 percent disapproved of U.S. withdrawal of support for major trade agreements.

Asan presents complementary findings. It shows Trump’s favorability during the campaign was low: on their 0 to 10 ratings scale, where 0 is the least favorable and 10 is the most, Trump was below a 2 up through Election Day.  This is similar to the favorability of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not much higher than that of Kim Jong-un — who hovered around 1 — and dwarfed by Barack Obama — who consistently scored in the low to mid-6 range from at least the beginning of 2014 through 2016. Trump’s election boosted him from a 1.69 in November to a 3.25 in December and a 3.49 in January, but dropped to 2.93 in March before going up slightly to 2.96 in June. This jump in favorability since becoming president has given him a steady lead over Abe, but Trump remains below Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is punishing South Korea economically over the deployment of THAAD.

When asked only about the United States, Pew shows 75 percent of South Koreans view the U.S. favorably, above both the regional and global median. In addition, 86 percent view Americans favorably and 78 percent like American democratic values, both of which are also above the regional and global medians.  Further, those on the political right are more inclined to have a favorable view of the U.S., with 86 percent of respondents who self-identified as politically right favoring the U.S. compared to 64 of those on the left.

Korea Surveys

The favorability rating of the U.S. in the Asan study largely follows the trend of the Obama years, remaining around a 6 out of 10. “This suggests that the United States’ favorability is not determined solely by the favorability of its leader and that American soft power has had a positive impact on South Korean public opinion,” the Asan report states. “It appears that South Koreans have learned to distinguish between the United States, the country, and Donald Trump, the individual.”

Both reports seem to indicate that American soft power has a positive influence on South Koreans, who view the U.S. and its president separately. However, the two present contradictory findings on how Trump has impacted perceptions of the U.S.

While Asan shows only a very minor dip in U.S. favorability since Trump’s election — a drop from 5.92 in November to 5.81 in June, which is termed as “relatively stable” favorability scores — Pew finds a larger drop. The 75 percent of South Koreans who viewed the U.S. favorably in 2017 is down from 84 percent in 2015, the last year Pew data is available, and is at its lowest level since 2008. Pew suggests this follows a larger global trend. Of the 37 countries polled, 30 showed a drop in favorable views of the U.S. in 2017. Other countries experienced a steeper fall though, as South Korea’s drop in positive views of the U.S. is tied for 23rd of the 30.

The two reports are also at odds on how South Koreans perceive relations with the U.S. moving forward. Only 8 percent of Pew respondents thought relations with the U.S. would get better, 45 percent thought they would stay about the same, and 43 percent stated they would get worse. In contrast, 67 percent of respondents in the Asan study thought relations with the U.S. would improve and only 20 percent thought relations would deteriorate.

There is clearly a wide gap between the sentiments expressed in both polls, but this is likely because of how the questions were worded.  Pew framed their question around Donald Trump (“Now that Donald Trump is the U.S. president, over the next few years do you think that relations between our country and the U.S. will ___?”) and Asan framed theirs around Moon Jae-in (“ROK-U.S. Relations under President Moon Jae-in will___”.) Considering the negative views on Trump expressed in both polls and Moon Jae-In’s high domestic popularity, this disparity makes a certain amount of sense. Additionally, as no exact date is provided for when the Pew poll was conducted — the report only states spring 2017 — their findings may not reflect changes based on Moon’s election and thus may leave out any boost in confidence it might have engendered for relations with the U.S.

It may still be too early to definitively claim that Trump is impacting South Korean perceptions of the United States. But this does not mean Trump’s controversial statements, should they continue, will not influence how South Koreans view the U.S. in the future. If the outcome of the U.S.-ROK summit this week does not meet expectations or Trump makes controversial remarks in the future, South Korean public opinion of the U.S. could be pushed lower.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Images from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Challenges in Relations with the U.S. under the Moon Administration

This is the seventh in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North KoreaChina, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Kyle Ferrier

The United States is a crucial security and economic partner for South Korea. Not only is the U.S. treaty obligated to defend South Korea, but 28,500 American troops are stationed below the DMZ. Should an armed conflict arise on the peninsula Washington would assume operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces. Since its implementation in March 2012, the KORUS FTA has helped to secure the U.S. as South Korea’s second largest trading partner, making it the cornerstone of the bilateral economic relationship. While the strength of these ties is built on a foundation of shared values transcending leadership transitions over the years, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly disputed fundamental aspects of the relationship. For the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, just as central to resolving the issues raised by Trump will be understanding his approach to foreign affairs.

Trump won the U.S. presidential election last November on a platform of radical change. In contrast to the mood of Obama’s campaign in 2008 which employed slogans such as “Hope” and “Yes We Can,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” complemented his bleak portrayal of a broken American system abused by elites and foreign countries alike. Trump often put South Korea in his crosshairs, claiming they did not pay enough for U.S. troops stationed there—going so far as to suggest withdrawing military personnel in exchange for allowing Seoul to have nuclear weapons as a cost saving measure—and criticizing the KORUS FTA for destroying U.S. jobs.

Once elected, Trump was quick to reverse course on the alliance, assuring President Park of U.S. commitment just one day later. Since then South Korea has hosted a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Matthis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, and most recently CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Although these visits are an extension of initial efforts to reassure Seoul, they are contrasted by Trump’s “disruptive” approach to foreign policy, which draws on his campaign rhetoric, prioritizes his interpretation of American interests, and is underwritten by unpredictability. The disruptive approach is seemingly being applied to adversary and ally alike, which directly impacts South Korea through U.S. policy on North Korea as well as issues of alliance management and bilateral trade.

The Trump administration has repeatedly stated Obama’s second term policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea is dead, yet it may just be going by a different name. At the onset of his presidency, Trump was relatively quiet on North Korea, with some hoping this might be interpreted as a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un. However, since mid-March the administration has taken a more forceful stance. Secretary Matthis first announced the end of “strategic patience” on his trip to Seoul. Soon after, multiple senior officials and even Trump himself claimed military options were back on the table, particularly a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Then, after a two-month policy review, the administration released its agenda of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which some have noted is remarkably similar to “strategic patience.” Both are centered on pressuring Beijing to influence Pyongyang and waiting for credible indications from the North that they are willing to reduce their illicit weapons programs. Despite posturing otherwise, security realities in Northeast Asia look to be constraining Trump to largely continuing Obama’s approach, at least for the time being, which is more than can be said for alliance management and trade relations.

Although Trump seemed to be shying away from campaign calls for Seoul to pay more for U.S. military presence on the peninsula, recent comments raise new questions, particularly for an upcoming milestone in the alliance. Trump’s call for South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system in an April 28 interview was refuted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster only a few days later. However, it was not enough to erase the negative impact on the public discourse in South Korea, unnecessarily complicating Moon’s promised domestic review of THAAD’s deployment. The president’s comments also raise questions over how he may attempt to shape the renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that is set to expire at the end of this year, which governs the burden sharing arrangement. It is certainly conceivable that Trump may influence SMA negotiations by similarly calling for Seoul to contribute more to the alliance, including the potential to leverage OPCON.

The last major challenge for the Moon administration will be addressing Trump’s criticism of the KORUS FTA. Trump has repeatedly attacked the trade deal, citing the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with South Korea, though it is still unclear if he will pursue the actions he has espoused. KORUS was one of only two trade agreements singled out for not meeting expectations in The President’s Trade Policy Agenda released by USTR, the other being NAFTA. Trump recently suggested that he might terminate the agreement if South Korea was not open to renegotiations, similar to the approach he has taken with NAFTA.

Whereas the relevant senior U.S. officials have attempted to counter Trump’s disruptive approach to North Korea and the alliance, competing coalitions within the administration on trade further obscures how U.S. policy might be carried out. On the one hand, there are those who favor policies more traditionally associated with protectionism: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Director of the new Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, and USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer. And on the other are those who support greater global engagement: Director of the National Trade Council Gary Cohn and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner. Although it is not yet clear how the U.S. will seek to pursue new concerns over KORUS—despite generally favorable reports by USTR and the US International Trade Commission released in the past year—the first major hurdle will come at the end of June when Commerce and USTR are expected to release their findings from a major review of all bilateral trading relationships.

How soon the Moon administration attempts to address these challenges with the United States will significantly dictate their potential impact on U.S.-South Korea relations. Whether it is growing pains or a more structural issue, the Trump administration’s implementation of foreign policy so far has negatively influenced South Korean public opinion. While the newly adopted policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” is remarkably similar to “strategic patience,” the process of getting there raised serious questions about U.S. credibility through concerns such as the location of the USS Carl Vinson and the perception that Washington would pre-emptively strike North Korea without consent from Seoul. Efforts by senior U.S. officials to smooth over some of Trump’s more controversial remarks have helped to stabilize relations, but the U.S. loses face each time. Even so, there are still contentious remarks that have not been sufficiently addressed.

Recent polling shows Trump’s popularity in Korea has sharply declined—falling below China’s Xi Jinping who is punishing South Koreans over THAAD. Koreans still view the U.S. favorably, yet it is unclear how long this duality can be sustained. A poor public opinion of the United States would severely constrain Moon’s ability to successfully coordinate the issues Trump has raised, which should make early and direct dialogue with his counterpart in Washington a high priority.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang: Delicate Diplomatic Triangle for President Moon Jae-in

By Robert R. King

The campaign is over; ballots have been cast; the result is clear—Moon Jae-in will be in the Blue House within a few days.

The most critical foreign affairs issue on the agenda of the new President is the South’s relationship with North Korea, and entwined with that issue is its relationship with the United States.  Though the new American President passed his first 100 days in office just a few days ago, there is still considerable uncertainty about the direction of American foreign policy, and one of the most sensitive issues facing the United States is North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.  The relationship with North Korea is the most critical question for the South and its new president, and because of the military ties with Washington, how to deal with the North will also be the key issue in relations with Washington.

President Moon begins his contacts with the new American president at something of a disadvantage.  When President Trump moved into the White House, South Korea was in the midst of the impeachment of Moon’s elected predecessor Park Geun-hye.  As a result, Trump met with Japan’s Prime Minister during the transition (his first post-election meeting with a foreign leader) and again after his inauguration in Washington and at Mar-a-Lago.  The American President also met in early April with Chinese President Xi Jingping.  The American Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State have both met with counterparts in Seoul in recognition of the importance of Korea in American policy, but the chemistry and content of bond between the two presidents has yet to emerge.

It is also not clear where there may be differences on the North between the two leaders.  During the campaign, Moon has expressed the desire for engagement with the North and better relations.  Trump has expressed serious concern about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but he has also expressed a willingness to meet directly with the North’s leader Kim Jong-un.  His first statement was made early in his tenure, but he repeated it again just last week.  Trump told Bloomberg News just a week ago that he would meet with Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances—“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely; I would be honored to do it.  If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”

South Korea’s new president, who was still a candidate ten days ago, cited this statement by America’s President and concluded that Trump is “more reasonable than perceived” and suggested that he and Trump were taking a similar position in favor of bringing the North back to negotiations on the nuclear issue.  It remains to be seen, however, how close the two presidents are on the details of how best to bring the North into denuclearization negotiations.

Another potentially serious issue that could create problems between the two presidents and their countries with regard to policy toward the North is THAAD, the U.S. defensive missile system now deployed in the South as agreed to by Moon’s predecessor.  The U.S. rushed to get the system in place before the election, although Moon expressed concerns about the deployment and the belief that the next government should review the decision, his political and ideological allies were vocally opposed to the deployment throughout the election.  This will likely be a serious point of contention that could create difficulties for relations between the U.S. and South Korea.

It is made more complex by the fact that China has been particularly opposed to THAAD and has taken steps to make the deployment more costly for the South by significantly cutting back Chinese tourism to South Korea—a major source of income and consumer goods sales in the South—as well as boycotting retail outlets in China owned by the South Korean conglomerate which sold land to the South Korean government on which THAAD is based.  THAAD is an issue that has serious security and domestic political implications for President Moon, but one of the most difficult will be the effect the issue has on the American-South Korea relationship.

Making the issue even more awkward and controversial was President Trump’s pronouncement last week that he expected the South to pay the $1 billion cost for the missile defense system.  His comment came less than ten days before the South Korean election, and was certainly not welcomed by pro-U.S. presidential candidates in the South.  Trump’s statement calling for the South to pay for THAAD was linked to his call for a renegotiation of the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement (KORUS).  The U.S. National Security Advisor, General McMasters, however, reassured his counterpart in Seoul that the U.S. would keep its previous commitment on the missile system.

The bottom line is that uncertainty and shifting policy signals from the Oval Office will not make the task of the new South Korean president an easy one.  He will likely have his own learning-curve and unintended missteps, which will make his task harder.  The relationship between Seoul and Washington is critically important for both countries, however.  It will take a great deal of maturity and understanding on the part of both presidents to deal with North Korea.  There is a great deal at stake for all sides.

 

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.   He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korea’s Presidential Candidates: Setting the Board

By Juni Kim

With both the Democratic Party of Korea and the People’s Party selecting their nominees earlier this week, all of the major South Korean parties have finished selecting their candidates ahead of the presidential election on May 9th.

Below is a brief overview of the nominees from the major and minor South Korean political parties (listed in alphabetical order). Although there are other independent candidates vying for the presidency, the following five nominees are likely to play the largest roles in the election race.

Bareun Party’s Nominee: Yoo Seung-min

Yoo Seong-Min CardOnce a close aide to ousted President Park Geun-hye, Representative Yoo Seung-min defected twice from the then ruling conservative Saenuri Party (currently rebranded as the Liberty Korea Party) and helped establish the splinter Bareun Party last December. The Daegu representative has campaigned on the pledge of “medium burden, medium welfare,” which suggests a reworked welfare program from a higher tax rate. The candidate has also emphasized the importance of U.S.-Korea relations, saying “(I) will have to hold talks with China and North Korea at some point, but dialogue between South Korea and the US is the most important.”

Yoo handily won the Bareun party nomination with 62.9% of the primary vote, but the latest Realmeter poll shows Yoo’s national support at 2.2%, which lags far behind the other major party candidates. Despite the uphill challenge of taking on the more popular liberal candidates, Yoo has distanced himself from the idea of forming a conservative bloc with the Liberty Korea Party.

 

Democratic Party of Korea’s Nominee: Moon Jae-in

Moon Jae In CardDemocratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-in enters the last month of the election season as the clear front runner for the presidency. In most polls, Moon Jae-in has maintained a formidable lead over his rivals. The most recent Realmeter poll shows his support at 34.9% with all other candidates polling at below 20%.

Moon previously ran for president in the 2012 election, losing to eventual victor and now former President Park Geun-hye by 48% to 52%. He is also closely associated with the late liberal president Roh Moon-hyun, who he worked with during his administration.

Moon has indicated that he would likely review the controversial deployment of the THAAD missile defense system if elected. He also criticized the North Korean policy of the previous conservative administrations and said, “If necessary, we will have to strengthen sanctions even further, but the goal of sanctions must be to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.” Moon has referred to himself as “America’s friend” and called the U.S.-Korea alliance “a pillar of our diplomacy.”

Justice Party’s Nominee: Sim Sang-jung

Sim Sang Jung CardSim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party enters the presidential race treading on familiar territory, having previously run twice for the presidency. During the 2012 election campaign, she withdrew her bid in support of having a liberal “unity candidate.” Her public support has hovered around the lower single digits, and her campaign faces the formidable task of taking on the larger better-funded parties in the election.

Sim earned her reputation as a labor activist in the 1980s and has become a prominent voice for progressive policies in the National Assembly. In September 2016, Sim suggested that economic incentives could be used to negotiate a nuclear freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program. She has also opposed the deployment of THAAD and criticized former President Park’s decision to pursue the defense system.

 

 

 

Liberty Korea Party Nominee: Hong Joon-pyo

Hong Joon-pyo CardHong Joon-pyo, the South Gyeongsang governor and former National Assemblyman, won the nomination last week for the conservative Liberty Korea Party, formerly known as the Saenuri Party. Hong inherits a difficult political situation from his party due to the repercussions of President Park’s impeachment that have tilted public support  towards the more liberal parties.

In order to form a stronger voter base, Hong has implored the Bareun Party to “come home” and merge together the two splintered parties. The Bareun presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min has remained resistant to the offer, and it is unlikely that the two parties will form a coalition before the general election.

Hong has pledged that he would maintain a hard-line policy against North Korea and would pursue negotiations with the U.S. for the possible redeployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea. His strong stance on defense extends to pledges on utilizing emerging technologies for security purposes and the creation of a special military unit to protect South Korea from North Korean commando threats.

People’s Party Nominee: Ahn Cheol-soo

Ahn Cheol Soo CardAhn Cheol-soo, the former doctor and tech mogul turned politician, hopes to take the presidency with the party he helped establish last year. After sweeping through the centrist People’s Party’s primary, he benefited from a recent upswell of public support and is currently the top presidential contender behind Moon Jae-in at 18.7%.

Ahn previously ran for president in 2012, but eventually withdrew from the race and supported Moon Jae-in. Ahn has since distanced himself from Moon and in his nomination acceptance speech declared, “Ahn’s era has arrived.”

Ahn has supported the continued deployment of THAAD in South Korea and has stated disapproval of China’s objections over the missile system. He has also expressed willingness to talk with North Korea. In speaking with reporters, he said, “A summit between the South and the North should not be an end in itself… (but) if it can be a tool to solve problems, we should consider it.”

 

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Digital South Korean Presidential Candidate trading cards created by Juni Kim.

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South Korea’s Presidential Election Timeline

By Juni Kim

On March 10th, the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye, which triggered the election process for South Korea’s next president. With May 9th selected as the new election date, South Korea’s political parties and candidates will embark on a feverish race over the coming weeks for the presidency. Adding to the urgency is each party’s primary process, which must be completed before the start of the general election. Each party has set their own primary schedule, with all parties set to announce their presidential candidates before candidate registration on April 15th and 16th. The below figures outlines the announcement dates for each major political party’s final nominee.

Candidate Timeline

The official start of the presidential campaign period follows on April 17th and lasts until the day prior to election day.  In order to accommodate South Koreans living abroad during the shortened election season, citizens can cast absentee votes from April 25th to 30th.  Registration for overseas voters has already skyrocketed compared to the prior presidential election, with more than seven times the number of voters within the first day of registration at 23,000 applicants. 204 voting stations will be set up in 116 countries by South Korea’s National Election Commission to handle the anticipated turnout. In South Korea, early voting opens on May 4th and 5th for residents that would prefer to vote before May 9th.

Election Calendar

For more information on the voting process and calendar, you can visit the National Election Commission’s website.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Should the U.S. Delay Announcing the Results of its North Korea Policy Review?

By Troy Stangarone

While the Trump administration has upended established expectations in regards to U.S. relations with Europe, China, Mexico, and for international economic policy, North Korea is perhaps the one area where the administration has taken a largely conventional approach. Reflective of the seriousness with which the administration takes the North Korea challenge, it is also one area where the administration is undertaking an extensive policy review before putting forward a policy. With the review set to be concluded by the end of this month, how should the administration proceed?

For much of the last decade, U.S. policy has been to preclude there being any daylight between Seoul and Washington when it comes to North Korea. With President Trump’s general inclination to reshape relationships and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye precipitating a snap election for a new president on May 9, the prospect exists for the United States and South Korea to find their preferred policy options out of alignment.

While the policy review is incomplete, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to Seoul may have hinted at some of the conclusions that the review has reached. In his remarks, he stated that the policy of strategic patience has ended and didn’t preclude the possibility of the U.S. taking pre-emptive action against North Korea. He also indicated that the United States was not interested in negotiating a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program, but rather would only enter into talks to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. These are not significant breaks from current U.S. policy, and likely indicate that the review will lead to reenergized efforts to put international pressure on North Korean rather than an abrupt change of direction.

In ordinary circumstances, there would be no need for the new administration to delay the rollout of its North Korea policy, but with South Koreans heading to the polls on May 9 and the new government set to come into office immediately thereafter, it might be prudent to withhold any policy pronouncements until after the new South Korean government is in place.

There would be three clear advantages for the United States in refraining from immediately announcing the results of its policy review. First, it would preclude the United States, rather than North Korea policy itself, from becoming a key focal point in the elections. Second, it would avoid the perception that the United States was trying to foreclose options for the new government before it has come to power. Lastly, should there be difference in policy approach being considered in Seoul, it would allow the Trump administration and the new administration an opportunity to work out their differences in private before either party announced a new policy.

One of the most certain ways that North Korea would succeed in its attempts develop nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States would be through divisions in the U.S.-Korea alliance. If delaying the results of the U.S. policy review for two months helps to ensure that there continues to be no daylight between U.S. and South Korean policy on North Korea, that would be a small price to pay to maintain the unity of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

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The Death of Kim Jong-nam: Implausible Deniability

By Mark Tokola

The story of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination took a bizarre turn with the announcement by Malaysian authorities that the cause of death was a banned chemical weapon, the nerve agent VX.  It is only supposed to be held in limited quantities by the United States and Russia. However, it has been reported that North Korea has been developing stockpiles of VX, among other substances banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, of which North Korea is not a party. The Malaysian announcement seems to have removed almost any remaining doubt that North Korea was responsible for the assassination, but why would North Korea choose to use such an exotic method when other, more prosaic, means of assassination were available?  And why choose a weapon that would be so obviously traced back to North Korea?

Kim Jong-nam’s assassination has now become reminiscent of the 2006 assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London.  Litvinenko was also killed by exotic means, exposure to a rare radioactive substance, Polonium, which was placed in a teapot used by Litvinenko in a hotel restaurant.  Once the cause of death was established, it immediately placed suspicion on the Russian government.  Litvinenko was a critic of Vladimir Putin’s and had exposed mafia-like behavior on behalf of Russian officials.  Litvinenko, like Kim Jong-nam, had predicted that he might become the victim of a state assassination.  Russia denied any responsibility for Litvinenko’s death, but an inquiry conducted by the British government concluded in 2016 that Litvinenko had been killed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and probably by the direct order of Vladimir Putin.

The parallels between the two assassinations are strong.  Both Kim Jong-nam and Litvinenko were exiles from authoritarian regimes, both were killed by spy-novel type means that would clearly seem to indicate state-sponsored murder, and both of the authoritarian regimes that they hoped to have escaped denied any public responsibility for their deaths.  Nevertheless, an exhaustive UK official inquiry established high confidence in Russian culpability in Litvinenko’s death, and it is now close to straining credulity to conclude that anyone other than North Korea could have murdered Kim Jong-nam.

Why would Russia and North Korea have carried out assassinations in ways that would point back to them?  Because it serves their interests to appear responsible while at the same time formally denying responsibility.  Both Russia and North Korea claim to adhere to international law.  In an official statement, North Korea, brazenly, accuses the government of Malaysia of violating international law by conducting an autopsy and not releasing Kim Jong-nam’s body to them – without acknowledging that the body is in fact Kim Jong-nam’s.  If Russia and North Korea announced that they had carried out the assassinations, they would be guilty of breaches of international law, possibly leading to sanctions and certainly becoming subject to international opprobrium.  The countries in which Russia and North Korea had murdered their countrymen, the United Kingdom and Malaysia, would have grounds to take diplomatic countermeasures, perhaps expelling their diplomats, minimizing relations, or taking economic steps.  Denying responsibility allows Russia and North Korea to claim to be in compliance with international law, to defend themselves against diplomatic countermeasures, and to allow themselves to continue to draw support from those at home and abroad who prefer to ignore the evidence.

Leaving their fingerprints on the assassinations also has its purposes for Russia and North Korea.  It makes clear to current and potential defectors and dissidents that they can find no safety from retribution by living abroad.  It also signals to the world that Russia and North Korea have the means to project power, albeit in a heinous manner.  They can have it both ways.  Call it implausible deniability.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from David Stanley’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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An Agenda for U.S.-Korea Relations Under the Trump Administration

By Troy Stangarone

As the Trump administration settles into Washington, DC, it inherits an alliance with South Korea that is not only in good shape, but that has been well run for nearly a decade now under both Republican and Democratic administrations. While the Trump administration inherits a solid base from which to begin its relations with South Korea, it also faces a potentially more difficult environment than the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As the Trump administration begins to build its foreign policy, what should its agenda be for relations with South Korea and handling North Korea?

To develop an agenda for any administration it is necessary to consider the challenges and opportunities it is likely to face in the near and long term. In the case of the Trump administration and the Korean peninsula the immediate term is likely to present the most challenges. The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye has changed the political environment and the Trump administration will need to manage relations with the interim administration while preparing to build a relationship with the successor to President Park Geun-hye either later this year or in early 2018 depending on how the Constitutional Court rules on President Park’s impeachment.

At the same time, at some point during the first year of the Trump administration North Korea will likely present the administration with a crisis by conducting another nuclear test or the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. With pressing needs related to North Korea and political change on the horizon in South Korea, there are five key areas where the Trump administration should focus its efforts in relations with South Korea.

Maintaining the Current Strength of U.S.-Korea Relations

With the alliance between the United States and South Korea in good shape, the first priority should be to make sure it stays that way. With South Korea entering a period of political transition this will present the administration with new challenges, but since it may also seek change in the alliance new opportunities. To best maximize those opportunities and maintain good relations the administration should begin building relationships with all of the four major political parties in South Korea to help identify areas of common agreement where the relationship can be grown.

The New Frontier Issues

Growing the relationship between South Korea and the United States beyond the security alliance has been a hallmark of the past two administrations. One area of opportunity for the Trump administration is continuing the New Frontiers initiative. The New Frontiers are efforts by the United States and South Korea to cooperate on issues such as cybersecurity, global health, and climate change. While the new administration may have its doubts about climate change, energy cooperation, a subset of any climate change initiative, is one area ripe for potential cooperation in light of South Korea’s need for energy and the United States ability to supply both LNG and renewable sources, and hence to could be an opportunity for the new administration to expand job growth in the United States.

Both the United States and South Korea also face increasing threats from cyberattacks, and a common adversary in this realm in North Korea. In light of North Korea’s suspected hacks of banks and government facilities in South Korea, and Sony pictures in the United States, Seoul and Washington have a shared interested in cooperating on detecting, deterring, and defending critical infrastructure from North Korean and other attacks.

Trilateral Relations Between the United States, South Korea, and Japan

Much as with the Obama administration, the Trump administration will need to focus on the trilateral relationship with Japan. While the Obama administration put significant effort in bringing the two countries together, South Korea’s relationship with Japan is still fragile. While the December 2015 agreement on the comfort women remains in place, some South Korean presidential candidates have suggested that it might not be adequate.  Japan has recently temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea and paused talks over a currency swap in response to the placement of a statue honoring the Comfort Women outside of its consulate in Busan. The intelligence sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan is also relatively new and controversial in South Korea. With this relationship still in a fragile state, like the Obama administration, the Trump administration will need to work behind the scenes to maintain a working trilateral relationship and allow South Korea and Japan space to continue to work through their difficulties.

Negotiating a New Special Measures Agreement

More of a medium term issue for the Trump administration will be negotiating a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA). The SMA is the vehicle through which South Korea’s contribution to the stationing of U.S. troops is set. The current agreement is set to expire in 2018. Increasing the contribution of U.S. allies has been a key issue for President Trump and the new SMA negotiations will provide the administration an opportunity to increase South Korean contributions. If the Trump administration seeks an increase in line with prior negotiations, it should be able to achieve its objective of increasing South Korean contributions. However, one tactic it should avoid is seeking to reopen the current SMA or issue a threat to withdraw U.S. troops until Korea pays all or nearly all of the cost of stationing our troops on the peninsula. That could lead to pushback in South Korea and, in light of the increasing threat from North Korea, would be a case of fighting the wrong battle at the wrong time.

North Korea Policy

When it comes to dealing with North Korea, the Trump administration will need to maintain close coordination with South Korea. The alliance functions best when the United States and South Korea are on the same page on North Korea, and this will be increasingly the case as Pyongyang looks to finish the development of its nuclear weapons program and its related delivery systems.

There are three main areas where the United States needs to ensure common agreement with South Korea – sanctions, engagement, and missile defense. The first is the overall approach to North Korea.  This is where sanctions and engagement come into play. The Obama administration and the Park administration have sought to pressure North Korea to return to talks over its nuclear program. It seems likely that the Trump administration will pursue a similar policy and it will be important to ensure that that there is bipartisan support in Seoul for continued sanctions, especially if the Trump administration chooses to be more aggressive on sanctions than the Obama administration.

The new administration in Seoul may seek to increase its engagement with North Korea, so the Trump administration will need to develop a sanctions policy that could dovetail with engagement by South Korea, preferably by working with Seoul to develop ways to engage North Korea that do not undermine efforts to roll back Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Similarly, President Trump has suggested in the past that he would be willing to meet with Kim Jong-un. If either administration in Seoul or Washington seeks to hold a summit meeting with North Korea, there will need to close coordination to make sure misunderstandings to not develop and that policy remains coordinated.

There will also need to be coordination on defensive matters such as the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and missile defense more broadly. As deterrence plays a more important role in containing a potentially nuclear armed North Korea, improved missile defense in both South Korea and the region will be a key policy issue. However, China will continue to pressure South Korea to refrain from deploying a missile defense system and the alliance will need to maintain a common position on the issue.

The dynamics of North Korea and political change in South Korea, along the with Trump administration’s desire to develop a new type of relationship with U.S. allies, will make navigating U.S.-Korea relations more challenging than in the past. Ultimately, however, the Trump administration’s goal should be to develop the relationship with South Korea so that it that passes the alliance it inherited on to future successors in as good or better shape as it received it. If this means scaling back some of the administration’s own ideas for the alliance or finding a way to find successful compromises that meet both countries objectives that would good policy and alliance building. As the old saying says, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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16 Issues for the Trump Administration to Consider in Developing a New North Korea Policy

By Troy Stangarone

As the United States transitions from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, there is significant uncertainty regarding the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. During the campaign, President-elect Trump broke from many of the orthodoxies shared by Republicans and Democrats in the area of foreign policy and since the election has begun to potentially shift gear on some of his campaign pledges. His ultimate foreign policy is still largely unknown.

One area where there will be significant interest in the new administration’s future policy direction will be North Korea. Pyongyang’s increasing efforts to develop both a workable nuclear warhead and multiple delivery systems has made North Korea a problem that will need to be addressed by the Trump administration. While it is still unclear if President-elect Trump will merely tweak existing policy or implement policies that rethink U.S. foreign policy and specifically how the United States addresses the challenges presented by North Korea. If the Trump administration were to consider a significant overhaul of U.S. policy on North Korea, here are 16 issues the incoming administration should consider in developing a new policy:

North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Priorities

The most important question for the new administration to consider is where North Korea is on the list of foreign policy challenges? While North Korea’s growing weapons programs should make it a priority, other challenges could come to dominate the administration’s agenda and push North Korea down the list. Any White House where decision making is centralized can only handle two or three significant foreign policy issues at a time. If North Korea is not in that top tier, the administration will have to set a policy more in line with an issue of lesser priority. However, if the Trump administration is willing to delegate authority, more issues could be handled simultaneously.

Beyond shaping the approach and resources dedicated to addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, the level of priority the administration gives to resolving the crisis will impact how it handles other foreign policy issues. For example, if North Korea is a top priority for the Trump administration, it impacts how the administration handles relations with China. Most experts consider China a key player in resolving the nuclear issue, something President-elect Trump himself stated during the election. If the administration decides to push for a resolution to the nuclear issue early in its term it will need to consider developing a China policy that will elicit the cooperation needed rather than one that will push China to use North Korea as a wedge against the United States. As with much in life, foreign policy is about tradeoffs and compromises because everything cannot be achieved at once.

Where is North Korea in Terms of U.S. Priorities with China?

If North Korea is among the United States’ foreign policy priorities as one key consideration, the same is true for how the Trump administration will prioritize North Korea among its other challenges in its relationship with Beijing. During the campaign, President-elect Trump ran on a platform of bringing back U.S. jobs and getting a fair deal for American workers. While not a major campaign issue, the South China Sea and China’s military modernization are likely to remain a priority for a Trump administration. Another major issue in the relationship is climate change and the Paris accords. Since election, President-elect Trump has suggested that he might seek to reshape the United States relationship with Taiwan. If the new administration places a priority in its relations with China on addressing trade relations and seeks to withdraw the United States from the Paris accords, it might find Beijing less than willing to help address North Korea. If it seeks to redefine relations with Taiwan, Beijing’s willingness to cooperate on North Korea might be even less.  At the same time, if it prioritizes North Korea over other issues in its relations with China, it may need to refrain from engaging in trade disputes with China or other controversial issues to elicit Beijing’s support for a more effective stance against Pyongyang. Again, the priorities in the U.S. relationship with China will impact the type of North Korea policy the United States will be able to pursue.

How Likely China is to Squeeze North Korea?

China is seen as the key to the North Korea issue. While China has worked with the United States to pass tougher new sanctions on North Korea after each of its nuclear tests this year and has, to an extent, implemented those sanctions, there is a perception that China is not doing as much as it could or not stringently enforcing sanctions. If the new administration views China as the key, how likely is China to truly squeeze North Korea and what might incentivize it to do so? Similarly, if China will not truly squeeze North Korea and the new administration determines that the United States does not have acceptable leverage to shift China’s position that would necessitate a different approach to the North Korea than if the administration determines that China will squeeze North Korea or that it has sufficient and acceptable leverage to do so.

Does Russia Have a Role to Play?

Much like President Obama early in his administration, President-elect Trump has suggested that the United States should have better relations with Russia. While Russia was part of the Six Party Talks, it was not a primary player in the negotiations. Could Russia play a larger role or could it be a potential spoiler?

If relations with Russia improve, the administration will need to determine if Russia could manage a larger role. However, if Russia demurs, it will be important to consider how Russia could impede the process. In the two most recent UN sanctions debate Russia held up the process to water down the sanctions. If China were to come on board for stronger sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil, Russia could serve as an alternative source. While Russia has its own reasons for not wanting to see North Korea’s program advance, Putin has shown a willingness to back outsiders when he thinks it could bring a geopolitical advantage. The one challenge for Russia would be keeping North Korea in line, as it has historically been a less pliant client than Russia’s more recent efforts at developing useful clients.

What Type of Deal is the Trump Administration Willing to Cut?

In the past, the United States has sought the complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament of North Korea. Should that remain the goal of the United States? Should the United States pursue only a freeze or a final deal that addresses the nuclear issue and a wider range of issues? In light of prior efforts to negotiate with North Korea, should Pyongyang also be prohibited from utilizing nuclear power or should it be allowed to maintain certain aspects of a civilian nuclear program? What elements should be in any agreement with North Korea? Should it only cover the nuclear program or should it include elements such as a peace treaty ending the Korean War? What type of concessions would the administration be willing to make to North Korea to secure an agreement? These are just a few of the elements of a potential deal that the administration will need to consider.

What Would a Trump Administration Be Willing to Trade Away?

The art of any good deal is finding a way to meet the needs of the negotiating parties in a manner that is acceptable to all involved. Over the last three decades the complexity of what is acceptable for North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan has kept a comprehensive deal out of reach. If the Trump administration decides to enter into negotiations with North Korea, they will have to determine what they are willing to give Pyongyang in return for it abandoning its nuclear program.

In the past, there has been an assumption that North Korea wanted some combination of recognition by the United States, security guarantees for the regime, and energy and economic assistance. In regards to security, North Korea has often called for the end of U.S. troops on the peninsula and the abdication of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While the administration should not trade away items which would remove the ability of South Korea and Japan to defended themselves against North Korean aggression after any deal, it will need to give consideration to what hard choices it is willing to make to reach an agreement. If it is unwilling to take minimal steps such as provide some type of security guarantee or recognition of the regime, a policy other than negotiation will likely be needed.

The Importance of U.S. Allies to North Korea Policy

In the campaign President-elect Trump broke from long-standing U.S. foreign policy and suggested that he saw relationships with allies as more transactional in nature than as part of a broader relationship where the United States will live up to its commitments to defend allies. Since the campaign, some of that rhetoric has been walked back, but in dealing with North Korea the administration will need to determine how it views alliances and what their role is in tackling the North Korean nuclear issue.

If the Trump administration is going to “re-baseline” U.S. alliances as incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has suggested, the administration will need to determine what advantages does having supportive allies in South Korea and Japan bring in terms of military and diplomatic contributions. What would be the costs to the United States of pursing a more independent or transactional policy in dealing with North Korea, specifically if the U.S. was no longer willing to assure allies that their concerns would be met. What is the tradeoff in having willing partners in dealing with North Korea as opposed to partners who might become more aggressive in pursuing their own interests solely if the U.S. were to as well?

What Are the Military Options?

As North Korea continues to make advancements on its missile program calls for the United States to take preemptive action before North Korea is able to demonstrate or utilize an ICBM that could reach the United States will likely grow. What are the merits and potential downsides of either blowing up a North Korean ICBM on the launch pad prior to liftoff or shooting a North Korean ICBM down in flight? If the U.S. choose to preempt a launch how would North Korea respond and what are the prospects for escalation? If the U.S. were to shoot down a North Korean ICBM, a successful intercept would likely be a strong deterrent, but what would be the consequences of a failure to intercept the missile?

Perhaps more boldly, are there other military options on the table such as covert operations that could slow the program or remove key individuals that could change North Korea’s decision structure. If you engage in military operations beyond those that are clearly defensive in nature, such as shooting down an ICBM on a trajectory for the United States or one of its allies, what are the prospects that China would be drawn into any escalation in conflict?

For all of these options, the administration would need to determine if they are willing to accept the risks and costs that any military option from shooting down an ICBM to engaging in a new war would entail not only for the United States, but also for our allies in the region. The bottom line for the administration will be is there a military option that has a high degree of success that will also minimize the potential for significant retaliation on the part of North Korea.

Is the Obama Strategy Working?

There is a tendency for incoming administrations to follow an “anything but” the previous administration policy, especially if the prior administration is one of the opposing party. Sometimes a change of course is good policy, but sometimes as President Obama found with aspects of President George W. Bush’s terrorism policy the process of governing means embracing some of your predecessor’s legacy. President-elect Trump has already demonstrated on healthcare policy that he is willing to keep some of the Obama policy in place, even on an issue that is unpopular with his party, so there is no reason to believe that a Trump administration would simply abandon the policy of the Obama administration.

What are the key characteristics of that policy? First, maintain tight policy coordination with U.S. allies. Second, increase the alliance’s defensive capabilities. Third, increase pressure on North Korea through sanctions and other measures? Fourth, work to discourage those who support the North Korean regime from doing so. Lastly, be open to negotiations with North Korea if those talks are designed to address the nuclear issue. If this is a sound approach, rebranding may be all that is needed. If it is not working, what steps might be more successful?

Is the Iran Example a Useful Model?

President-elect Trump has described the Iran nuclear deal as one of the worst deals he has ever seen. However, during the election, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s team had made clear that they saw it as a model for dealing with North Korea. While more nuanced than this, the Iran model is the idea of imposing crippling economic sanctions to force North Korea into negotiations over its nuclear program.

In the case of Iran, it was allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program and the agreement was only for ten years. North Korea has stated that they will not negotiate an Iran style deal, but the final details of the agreement point to issues that the Trump administration will need to consider in any negotiation. Will the administration keep to the standard of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program? Or, should Pyongyang be allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program as was the case with Tehran. This was part of the Agreed Framework, but North Korea ultimately cheated on that deal. Alternatively, is there already a mismatch in terms of the value of North Korea’s nuclear program? Pyongyang likely believes it should get a better deal for actual nuclear weapons and the administration likely believes that North Korea should receive more stringent conditions for having developed them. Also, the administration will need to thoroughly consider in what ways North Korea differs from Iran, to see how useful any lessons from that experience may be. If the two situations are different enough, there may be few useful lessons. Alternatively, if the Iran model is not a good one, what would a different approach look like? These are the types of questions the Trump administration will need to ask as it decides whether or not to utilize the Iran precedent.

How Stable is North Korea?

Since the end of the Cold War there have been predictions that North Korea was near collapse. While many other Cold War regimes have collapsed, or undertaken significant economic reforms such as China and Vietnam, North Korea has taken only minimal steps towards reform.

Historically stability mattered because the sense was that, if the regime was on the verge of collapse, there was little reason to negotiate with it or make a substantial offer for the nuclear program. However, the Trump administration should consider the regime’s stability for two reasons. If the regime is stable, pushing it in the hopes of collapse may not yield the desired result, but a stable regime could be in the position to reach a deal, even if it is not an optimal one for the United States and its allies. If the regime is unstable, negotiations will have little effect as a weak regime would be unable to make the political choices needed to give up or significantly reduce the nuclear program and survive. Depending on the perception of the stability of the regime, it impact whether engagement or pressure is likely to be a more useful tool, while the wrong assumption could lead the administration to develop a flawed policy.

How Susceptible is North Korea to Sanctions?

North Korea is less connected to the global economy than most other nations and survived a famine in the 1990s in which over a million North Koreans may have starved to death. Iran’s economy was much more open to the global economy and therefore more susceptible to sanctions than North Korea, and it still took three years after sanctions were placed on Iran’s oil to negotiate an agreement on its nuclear program.

If North Korea is less susceptible, the Trump administration will need to consider what that means in regards to timelines for action on North Korea. The administration will also need to give consideration to what areas North Korea may be most susceptible to sanctions and what types of sanctions would be most likely to be effective in that area. While the focus has been on coal as in recent years as that has been North Korea’s primary export, there may be other areas or types of sanctions the administration should consider. For example, imposing more sanctions on financial institutions that have dealings with North Korea. At the same time, it will need to consider the costs that the regime is willing to bear to complete its nuclear program before the sanctions force it to do otherwise. A nation is willing to let a significant portion of its population starve to death is likely willing to bear a significant cost.

Will North Korea Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons?

Negotiating a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is only possible if North Korea is willing to engage in talks on the dismantlement of its nuclear and missile program. For much of the Obama administration the belief was that North Korea was not. Discerning North Korea’s intentions helps to shape whether the Trump administration should seek to engage or pressure Pyongyang.

If the Trump administration reaches the same conclusion as the Obama administration, seeking talks with Pyongyang would be of minimal utility. Instead the administration would need to develop a program designed to create conditions which might change the regime’s perspective, similar to the case of Iran, or take steps to enhance U.S. and allied defense so as to deter North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. Both of these options could also be taken simultaneously.

However, if the regime believes that North Korea would be open to a deal, talks should be the primary course of action. The key for any negotiations would be finding a way to ensure that they were not a play for time by North Korea to finish its nuclear program while reducing pressure on the regime.

Why Does North Korea Want Nuclear Weapons?

The North Korean regime has suggested that it has developed its nuclear weapons program to protect itself from U.S. hostility, but the reunification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms still remains a goal of the regime. Determining whether the regime views the nuclear weapons as the key to its survival or a tool to achieve political ends could have a significant influence on how a policy is shaped. If nuclear weapons are synonymous with regime survival in Pyongyang, it may be impossible to provide the assurances needed to convince them to give up their weapons. However, if the nuclear weapons are for a political end, demonstrating through pressure that even with nuclear weapons that goal is not achievable without threatening the regimes survival might create room for negotiations. It is a difference that could shape the policy the administration chooses.

Are Human Rights Part of the Equation?

In the last year the United States has placed sanctions on Kim Jong-un and his sister for the regime’s violation of human rights. It is unclear how the Trump administration will approach the issue of human rights, but in the case of North Korea they will have to decide if the issue of human rights and sanctions related to North Korea’s human rights violations should be linked to North Korea’s nuclear program. If the administration does wish to link the issues, it will need to consider whether human rights sanctions encourage or discourage North Korea from engaging on the nuclear program. At the same time, it will have to determine if it would be willing to remove the sanctions to make progress on the nuclear issue in the absence of progress on human rights in North Korea.

If You Break North Korea, Are You Willing to Fix It?

In the run up to the Iraq War, Colin Powell famously cautioned President George W. Bush that if “you break it, you own it.” A similar consideration should apply to any aggressive sanctions policy or kinetic action that the Trump administration decides to take in regards to North Korea. In the case of North Korea, regime stability will always likely be a question. How much pressure can it stand before collapse does ensue? So far, China has pushed back on any sanctions that it thought might truly endanger the regime. Nevertheless, China could miscalculate the pressure the regime can withstand, or preemptive military action could precipitate a conflict that leads to collapse. If there is good reason to believe North Korea is about to strike either the United States or its allies, action will need to be taken. However, if the administration decides to pursue significant pressure, it also need to consider what actions it would take if the pressure proves to be too much. Would it be willing to contribute to rebuilding the North under a unified Korea, and would it be willing to actively support South Korean claims to sovereignty over the North in the face of strong Chinese resistance. If so, then more aggressive measures may be advisable, but if not a more gradual approach may be called for with North Korea.

While this is not necessarily an exhaustive list, it is designed to show how complex the North Korean nuclear crisis is and how different understandings of issues can influence how policy would develop. To see this, we look at how different outcomes would occur given variations on two issues: North Korea’s willingness to negotiate and China’s willingness to pressure North Korea.

If the Trump administration believes that North Korea will not negotiate on its weapons program and that China will not truly pressure the regime, than that would argue for a policy of increased deterrence. However, if the administration believes that China would pressure North Korea further but North Korea will not negotiate, that impacts policy more generally towards China to ensure that Beijing remains onboard in pressuring North Korea. The caveat, of course, is where then North Korea fits in regards to the administration’s priorities. If North Korea is the priority, that then affects how the Trump administration approaches China on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea or other issues. Ultimately, solving the North Korean nuclear issue is more complex than simply a question of whether to sanction the regime more or engage in negotiations.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Uri Tours photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Trump Administration and Trade Policy: Confirmation Questions for the Commerce and USTR Nominees

This is the second in a two part series looking at the potential questions senators should ask Trump Administration officials on policy that will affect Korea during their confirmation hearings. The first part on the Trump Administration’s State and Defense nominees can be found here.

By Phil Eskeland

On Thursday morning, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, will be subject to a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, chaired by Senator John Thune of South Dakota.  Because Robert Lighthizer was nominated to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) just last week, his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over U.S. trade policy, will be held sometime after the presidential inauguration.

As mentioned in the first part of this series, confirmation hearings are a window to gain insight into the views and priorities of any administration.  While the Department of Commerce has many divergent responsibilities from conducting to the decennial census to maintaining a small fleet of ocean-worthy vessels as part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the International Trade Administration (ITA) has been historically been a locus of the agency.   In the past, USTR has taken the lead in trade policy and negotiation while the Department of Commerce is focused primarily on trade promotion through the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service and enforcement by acting on foreign dumping (selling an imported product in the U.S. below what the good sells for in the overseas country) and unfair foreign government subsidy complaints from U.S. industry.  Because USTR is a relatively small agency, the Commerce Department also provides the industry expertise to aid and guide USTR negotiators.

The issue of trade was raised to a top-tier issue during the election.  Suffice it to say that many of Trump’s positions and statements on trade diverged from long-held views of most Congressional Republicans.  Thus, the confirmation hearings for these two nominees will be an interesting guide not only to gain insight into Trump administration policies, but to see what type of questions are posed by members of the Senate Commerce Committee.  As is custom, presidential nominees that require Senate confirmation submit written responses to questions posed by the committee in advance of the hearing.  In answering the question regarding the top challenges facing the Commerce Department, Mr. Ross responded with a priority to expand U.S. exports and reduce the U.S. trade deficit.

Below are a list of a just a few suggested questions for Senators to ask.  Again, even if they do not come up in the hearings, it will be interesting to see how the Trump Administration will deal with them over time:

  1. What is your view on trade deficits?  Do you view trade as a zero-sum game?  Do you view imports as “bad” and exports as “good?” Does the perspective of the consumer factor into your views?
  2. What is your plan to expand U.S. exports? 
  3. Will there be any change to which agency will take the lead on trade policy – Commerce or will it remain at USTR?   Will the Trump Administration support the consolidation of all trade-related functions and offices within the Executive Branch into the Department of Commerce or create a Department of Trade?  If not, will the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee (TPCC) play an elevated role in the Trump Administration?
  4. With Peter Navarro as the Director of the new National Trade Council, Jason Greenblatt as the new Special Representative for International Negotiations, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as Senior Adviser, all in new trade roles at the White House,  what will you do to insure consistency in Trump Administration trade positions and messaging?
  5. Which country or countries may be next in line for trade negotiations?
  6. Do threats to raise tariffs on products made outside of the United States set the precedent to embolden other nations to bring production back to their home country and withdraw foreign direct investment from the United States?
  7. With the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), what is your vision to promote U.S. economic interests in Asia, particularly among our allies in light of the growing interest to complete the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks?
  8. Do you believe China manipulates its currency?  If so, when should we expect to see this designation in the Trump Administration?
  9. What improvements do you think need to be made to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)?  Do you view North America as an integrated market to compete against Asia?
  10. Do you envision the administration taking many self-initiated actions to enforce U.S. trade laws?  If so, what might these actions entail?

Phil Eskeland is Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Amanda Walker’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.