[Column] Korea and the return of Trump

Posted on : 2024-07-08 16:58 KST Modified on : 2024-07-08 16:58 KST
South Korea needs to be flexible and balanced in its approach
Donald Trump walks to the podium at a campaign rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, on June 28, 2024. (AFP/Yonhap)
Donald Trump walks to the podium at a campaign rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, on June 28, 2024. (AFP/Yonhap)

By Kim Yeon-chul, former minister of unification and current professor at Inje University

Donald Trump is coming back. While it may be too early to predict the results of the 2024 US presidential election, in a world where political camps are more polarized than ever, Republicans seem to be more united than the Democrats.
The world has now started to busy itself in preparation for Trump’s possible return. Many countries are lining up to reach out to Trump while also engaging in preventive diplomacy to brace themselves for the change. How should Korea prepare? 
The Trump phenomenon is not the start of anything new but is merely a product of the times. Much like how most European politics, as demonstrated in France, are hampered by anti-immigrant backlash, the backlash to globalization is shaking up US politics.
Trump and his advisers have, based on the experiences from his first term as president, outlined his new agenda which includes radical promises such as operating camps for the homeless, the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and swift layoffs of government employees. The civil war-like level of confrontation in politics is expected to intensify.
Diplomatically, Trump’s “America First” campaign centers on reducing diplomatic intervention and making others shoulder expenses. The Yalta order, established in February 1945, is now defunct. For a brief moment, the outcomes of Yalta represented hope for the postwar world.
The era of sustainable peace that Roosevelt had hoped for never materialized, but it was a cause the international community could not give up on. Now, the era of cooperation between great powers to manage conflict that the Yalta Conference produced is over. The vacuum left by the US will unleash the wrath of history, which had been tamped down under the postwar system.
Coordinated responses to climate change will also become more difficult. The role of international organizations will diminish, and the paralyzed UN Security Council is unlikely to be revived. The collapse of the old order has already begun and Trump’s return will only accelerate it.
Protectionist trade, which will be upheld without regard for economic impact, will cause a global recession. Trump's camp has vowed to impose tariffs of more than 60% on all Chinese goods and 10% on European goods. Geopolitical instability and protectionism will lead to supply insecurity and price hikes, which will be unfavorable for South Korea’s economy, which is highly dependent on foreign countries.
Trump sees foreign diplomacy as a financial drain. He won’t use US taxpayer money for the sake of other country’s national security, meaning that he expects everyone to shoulder security expenses. The logic of traditional alliances won’t get through to him. There’s no use pinning our hopes on the expectation that his repudiation of alliances is all bark and no bite.
It is worth noting that this is not the opinion of Washington security experts, but the average perception of the mainstream Republican base. Unlike his first term, Trump is speaking to his voters and intends to represent them.
What are his policies on the Korean Peninsula? Some say that chaos shaking up the global playing field could be an opportunity, but such hope is unfounded. Unluckily for us, the government in power is currently being led by Yoon Suk-yeol. Chaos is a disaster when those in power can neither grasp opportunities nor have the will to solve pressing problems.
It is worrisome that we cannot hold too high hopes for the ability of the US, which has operational control over Korean troops in the event of a war, to manage the situation. Some expect that there is the possibility that North Korea will remain diplomatic with the US while being hostile to South Korea, mirroring circumstances during Bill Clinton’s time in office, but that is unlikely to happen.
North Korea has changed immensely since the collapse of the February 2019 Hanoi summit, with its closer ties with Russia being only one example.
It is also questionable whether a second Trump administration will have the will and ability to coordinate to resolve the complex North Korean nuclear issue. The Trump campaign has been aggressive in its policy toward China, even as it claims that it will reduce its involvement in the international community. The escalation of the US-China confrontation will likely result in military confrontation rather than diplomacy and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula.
No evidence bolsters the claim that the chaos caused by Trump will set South Korea on the track to acquire nuclear weapons. At the global level, the nuclear arms nonproliferation regime will remain a common interest of the great powers until the end, even as the old order collapses.
Perhaps a second Trump administration will demand payment for the deployment of the US nuclear umbrella, or strategic assets, on the Korean Peninsula. Our government will be caught between the US demand for a significant increase in defense spending and public opinion against it. The prospect of denuclearization is becoming increasingly remote while nuclear armament seems impossible. This is the pessimistic reality we will face due to failed negotiations.
No rules exist in this competition, and we’ve reached a period where no norms get in the way of striving toward profit. When a heavy fog impedes our vision, we shouldn’t focus on which direction we’re going but remember to keep our balance. By balance, we don’t mean that we should stay right in the center, but that we should make sure we’re not leaning toward any specific direction.
We should be prudent and flexible, much like Vietnam’s bamboo diplomacy. Bamboo is characterized by its strong roots, firm stalks, and flexible branches. South Korean diplomacy should have its roots in the country’s national interest, but sadly, those roots are rather shaky.
Who is benefiting from these diplomatic policies? Now is not the time to tread the familiar, beaten path. We must prepare for the upcoming chaotic times by becoming flexible and maintaining our balance.

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

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