What does a Trump administration mean for global governance? What direction should President-elect Donald Trump take toward the Korean Peninsula? In this briefing, Sook Jong Lee looks at the implications of the Trump administration for the Asia-Pacific region, specifically with regard to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Lee ends on a positive note, stating that hope remains for the new administration to prove doubts that the U.S. might lack the domestic support to maintain a leading role in global affairs ill-founded.
Countries in the Asia-Pacific are anxious to see how the Trump administration will form its policy toward the region. During his cam-paign, President-Elect Donald Trump did not support conventional commitments to the security of the United States’ Asian allies. His isolationist policies, if made into reality, will greatly affect a region where the U.S.-led hub-and-spoke alliance system has maintained stability and peace for decades. Of particular concern is the possibility that right-wing voic-es in Japan and South Korea, which have called for nuclear armament or more self-reliant defenses, will be amplified if faith in U.S. defense commitments begins to waver. A rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or free trade renegotiations with South Korea would also bode ill for the region’s already troubled economic growth. A rollback of the Obama administration’s strategy of rebalanc-ing to Asia would leave a vacuum China is likely to fill. Most Asian countries do not want to lose the region’s most effective balancer against an assertive China.
The nuclear threat posed by North Korea will require immediate policy responses from the Trump administration. Two decades of failed denuclearization efforts have led to new proposals, such as a military strike or, on the other extreme, unconditional negotiations that would aim to freeze nuclear and missile tests in order to open the path to peace treaty talks. It is uncertain which Trump will pursue.
A rekindling of diplomatic efforts is highly preferable to a dramatic military solution, but the worst scenario would be one in which Trump neglects to act. If the United States sits idly by, there will be no time left to reverse North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Trump must focus on innovative policies to push North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to see that nuclear weapons possession undermines his survival rather than guarantees it. This path will only be possible if the Trump administration consults with and takes joint action with South Korea.
The Trump administration needs to reaf-firm the role played by the United States in global governance. The isolationist sentiment and sharp social rifts revealed by the presiden-tial campaign have left many in the world doubting whether the United States has the domestic support it needs to maintain a lead-ing role in global affairs, but there remains hope that the new administration proves these doubts to be ill-founded. ■