[Editorial] The increasingly dangerous risk of Trump

Posted on : 2024-02-14 16:50 KST Modified on : 2024-02-14 17:20 KST
South Korea must act now in preparation for the possibility of a second Trump term
Donald Trump stands with NATO leaders following a photo to mark a summit in Hertfordshire, UK, in December 2019. (AP/Yonhap)
Donald Trump stands with NATO leaders following a photo to mark a summit in Hertfordshire, UK, in December 2019. (AP/Yonhap)


Donald Trump, who is increasingly likely to be elected to a second term as US president, threatened to “encourage” Russia to attack NATO members that fail to pay their defense bills. It’s time for South Korea to account for the risk a second Trump presidency would pose to the ROK-US alliance and to Korean Peninsula affairs and to quickly take the necessary preparations.

Trump made the remarks while referring to a NATO summit in 2018 during a campaign rally in South Carolina over the weekend. “I would not protect you,” Trump said, referring to NATO member states who were not paying their share of defense costs. “In fact, I would encourage them” — meaning Russia — “to do whatever the hell they want.”

Trump’s remarks contradict NATO’s basic principle of collective security, in which all member states are obligated to respond to an attack on any single member. It’s also astounding that the US president would contemplate goading Russia to attack an allied country.

America’s allies in Europe have objected strongly to Trump’s comments, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz describing them as “irresponsible and dangerous.”

The US’ alliances are not some sort of charity scheme. The global network of alliances enables the US to keep a grip on the global order, which comes with immense military, economic and political advantages. Key allies in Europe and in East Asia, including South Korea and Japan, shoulder a heavy security burden that includes sharing defense costs and providing space for American military bases.

It’s extremely troubling that Trump, despite those facts, continues to disdain and threaten allies as a way of inciting discontent and anger among his supporters for his own political gain.

The deep fault lines in US domestic politics and growing isolationist sentiment are raising the likelihood of Trump being reelected. If Trump does win a second term, his policy of extorting concessions from allies is expected to go into overdrive.

In regard to the Korean Peninsula, Trump is likely to demand that Seoul cover a much larger share of defense costs, threaten to pull some or all American troops from the peninsula, and sit down with North Korea (without a spot for South Korea at the table) to offer the North recognition as a nuclear weapon state in exchange for a freeze on the further development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

As the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons continues to grow, the credibility of the US’ extended deterrence will decrease, and there will be renewed calls inside South Korea to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. Radical instability in the world order could increase the risk of war around the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul must be vigilant in monitoring and preparing for the “Trump risk.” It needs to prepare detailed contingency plans for a second Trump administration and adopt a security stance that does not rely exclusively on the US and includes close communication and cooperation with other allies.

Most urgent is for President Yoon Suk-yeol to pivot away from his current diplomatic course, which has seriously damaged relations with China and Russia while betting the house on the US.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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