A second Trump administration would likely lead to an escalatory and unpredictable approach toward the “Hermit Kingdom.”
It is tempting to presume that the return of Donald Trump to the White House in 2025 would revive the “bromance” between Trump and Kim Jong-un and spark renewed tensions within the U.S.-South Korea alliance over the level of South Korean contributions to support the U.S. troop presence.
But while in office, Trump showed that he values political flexibility and prioritizes moves that return immediate tactical political advantages. If Trump were to win the 2024 presidential election, he would face at least three new realities that might lead to outcomes different from those achieved during the first Trump administration.
First, the presence of the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration rather than the progressive Moon Jae-in administration (which was in office during Trump’s first term) would raise the costs of rapprochement with North Korea. Instead of Moon’s pursuit of dialogue and partnership with Kim, Yoon would be counselingTrump to pursue deterrence against North Korea’s ever-expanding threat. The South Korean president would no longer be a cheerleader for improvements in relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Instead, the Yoon administration would likely oppose Trump’s efforts to restore dialogue channels without insisting that North Korea first signal its commitment to denuclearization. Moreover, Yoon would be loath to act as an intermediary for such efforts.
Second, Kim Jong-un may no longer perceive a need to engage with Trump now that he has more substantial backing from Vladimir Putin and support from Chinain opposition to U.S.-led sanctions. Having faced the humiliation of the failedFebruary 2019 U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Kim may determine that it is necessary to establish North Korea’s upper hand over a weak Trump by demonstrating expanded North Korean capabilities. Doing so would drive up the asking price for renewed U.S.-North Korean engagement to levels that Trump could not afford. The result might be a return to a rhetorical escalation of tensions between the American “Dotard” and the North Korean “Rocket Man,” with the accompanying risks of direct conflict.
Third, the combination of South Korean anxieties about the implications of Trump’s return for the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence and Trump’s prior statements regarding the permissibility of South Korea pursuing a nuclear weapons capability might tempt South Korea to seek nuclear parity with North Korea.
Still, this course would likely come at the cost of a robust U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump’s unpredictable leadership would dramatically transform the inter-Korean security dynamic and challenge the U.S. security commitment to South Korea in an unprecedented fashion, with uncertain regional and global security implications.
In sum, rather than presaging a rewind to Trump’s previous policies toward North and South Korea, new geopolitical circumstances resulting from the growing U.S.-China rivalry would generate unpredictable outcomes. But the foreign policy of a second Trump administration would still be rooted in Trump’s transactional focus on using immediate events to generate political benefits, regardless of past precedent.
Scott Snyder is Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the author ofThe U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Why It Might Fail and Why It Must Not, which considers implications for the alliance of future “America First” or “Korea First” policies.