With the U.S. Republican and Democratic national conventions taking place this week and next week, Tim Beal examines what U.S. policy vis a vis Korea may look like in the first year of the next administration. The following is an expanded version of his previous article published in NK News and is part 1 of a 2-part series.  

A look ahead at US Korea policy after the election

By Tim Beal

A huge amount has been written, and will continue to be written, about US foreign policy under the next president, and a fair amount of that focuses on Korea.  At the time of writing, mid-2016, there are two candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, with Clinton leading in the polls. This essay will focus on Clinton for three reasons.

Three Reasons to focus on Hillary Clinton

Firstly there is her lead in the polls. In some governance systems, the British for example, a defeated candidate for the top job can remain a potent, if wounded, political force. Not so in America where a defeated presidential candidate has no currency. Moreover, Trump is so at odds with his party that his foreign policies will not attract much attention if he loses.

Secondly it is difficult to know what his foreign policies actually are and what they would mean in practice. There is always a gap, often a huge one, as Barack Obama most recently has demonstrated, between the policies of the candidate and those of the president.  This is partly because of electoral opportunism – saying what you think will bring in votes irrespective of whether you think it is a good idea or can be implemented – and partly because of the difficulties of implementation in a dysfunctional, fractured governance system. But the difficulties with Trump are different. It is not so much that he is lying but that he often doesn’t make much sense. Take, for instance, his pronouncements on North Korea.  He brings forward a simplistic version of current, ineffective policies asserting that he will make them work because of his magic touch (‘we have the leverage’):

The list of humiliations go on and on and on. President Obama watches helplessly as North Korea increases its aggression and expands further and further with its nuclear reach.

Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade deals and apply leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea. We have the leverage. We have the power over China, economic power, and people don’t understand it. And with that economic power, we can rein in and we can get them to do what they have to do with North Korea, which is totally out of control.

The ‘China hope’ policy has long been a staple illusion. It won’t work because it is built on a logical fallacy. America’s North Korea policy is a subset of its China policy, and the subjugation of the DPRK (considered ‘out of control’ and thus must be brought under control) is a stepping stone to the taming and fragmentation of China and its removal as a competitor to American hegemony.  It is unlikely that China will so easily acquiesce in its own destruction.

Sometimes his comments are couched in embarrassingly juvenile terms with no indication that he has any new policies which will deliver better outcomes.  “Who the hell cares? I’ll speak to anybody. Who knows?” Trump said, according to United Press International. He said the negotiation would not include formal state relations:

I wouldn’t go there, that I can tell you. If he came here, I’d accept him, but I wouldn’t give him a state dinner like we do for China and all these other people that rip us off when we give them these big state dinners.

We give them state dinners like you’ve never seen. We shouldn’t have dinners at all. We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table, and we should make better deals with China and others.

Trump said the odds of successfully persuading Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are “low,” with a 10 to 20 percent chance.

As with negotiation, so with military action, he does no more than repeat old policies, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. “What would I do in North Korea?” the U.S. Republican presidential candidate wrote in his book “The America We Deserve.” [published in 2000] “Fair question. It’s easy to point out the problem, but what should be done to solve it? Am I ready to bomb this reactor? You’re damned right.”

In the book, Trump said he does not advocate a nuclear war, but if negotiations between the North and the U.S. fail, he would support a “surgical strike” against the North before the state poses a real threat:

I am not trigger-happy, but as president I would be prepared to order a strike – using conventional weapons – against North Korean targets, if it prevented nuclear blackmail or the nuclear destruction of the U.S. population.

The ‘military option’ of surgical strikes at Yongbyon has been examined by the last three administrations, at least since 1994, and rejected.

Trump and Reagan


Bruce Cumings has compared Trump with another ‘show business president’, Ronald Reagan, and has pointed out that Trump has the dangerous combination of ignorance, narcissism and energy:

What is most dangerous is what is inside Trump’s head — where you find basically nothing that would indicate that he knows anything about the rest of the world…

Trump is very different [from Ronald Reagan], he is very active, tons of energy, sleeps only four or five hours a night, hardly listens to anybody. So he would be the most dangerous president probably in American history.

Reagan of course was famous for not knowing much about the world and not caring about his ignorance.  His presidency ran on autopilot, with him often nodding off to sleep during meetings, and he didn’t even know the names of all the members of his cabinet. For many years, it is said, he lived in a ‘mental twilight’, with Alzheimer’s being the last stage; energetic he was not.

We might well agree that Trump would be dangerous, but it is not very profitable to spend too much time speculating on how that may play out in respect to Korea or the rest of the world, because his statements are pregnant with vacuity rather than meaning and are inconsistent. Since he has such slippery and incoherent ideas on foreign policy, it is difficult to predict who would be his Secretary of State. An article in The Hill didn’t even attempt it; other cabinet positions were covered but not State. The Washington Post, in heavy-handed humour suggested Vladimir Putin, and recently Ron Paul’s name has been circulated.

Again from Bruce Cumings:

Of course, he switches his positions so frequently that most people have no idea what his foreign policy would look like if he somehow gets into the Oval Office…

Thirdly: the Ubiquitous Neocons

The third reason for skipping lightly over Trump is perhaps bit of a stretch but follows on from the lack of a discernible, distinctive foreign policy team. Hillary Clinton draws on a known reservoir of established, and Establishment, advisers and officials. Many of them would also be influential in a Trump administration. Convergence is common around the world, but there are differences between Kim Jong Un and Park Geun-hye and between David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn. However, the differences between the Democrats and Republicans, especially as regards foreign policy, are less pronounced. What distinctions there may be are products of history, personality and patronage rather than ideology. The US is, like Japan, a one-party state with factions. Take Robert Kagan for example.

Kagan is described in a recent Foreign Policy article as a ‘prominent GOP neoconservative’ who is now fundraising for Hillary Clinton. He was, amongst other things, co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, which helped bring us the invasion of Iraq, and is the husband of Victoria Nuland, who in orchestrating the coup in the Ukraine, significantly ratcheted up the confrontation with Russia and the possibility of a Third World War. Clearly Kagan prefers Clinton’s foreign policy stance to what he’s seen of Trump’s, but if Trump were president it is unlikely he, or his like, would refuse to offer advice and perhaps services.  The main reason the GOP elite hate Trump is that they fear he will lose the election; but another important reason is that he is a maverick who has challenged the shibboleths of ‘conventional  wisdom’ on foreign policy – through ignorance, electoral opportunism or conviction. That conventional wisdom embraces both Democrats and Republicans. Despite Krauthammer’s horror at his ‘pacifism’ even the ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders does not really stray far from the reservation.

Trump the candidate has scandalised the foreign policy establishment on issues such as NATO and the nuclearisation of Japan and South Korea.  But what would happen under President Trump? We don’t know, but there is a strong possibility that the conventional wisdom – which is basically exemplified by Hillary Clinton – will re-assert itself. In other words, scratch Trump’s Secretary of State and you will find Clinton’s. Unless, that is, he appoints Ron Paul. This is not to say that there will not be differences, as there were for instance between Obama and Clinton, but they may be more rhetorical than real. The substance may be essentially the same.


Trump and Clinton: Dangers of a Different Kind


So Donald Trump is dangerous, but we don’t quite know in what ways his danger will be manifested. And it is likely that though he may well stumble into crises, his general policy thrust will probably be less belligerent than that of Hillary Clinton. As Israel Shamir put it, ‘Trump is a long shot for sanity, but it is better than a sure disaster.’ She is different. She is also dangerous but she has form, as they say in British detective stories – a criminal record and a history of exercising state power, mainly in her tenure as Secretary of State but also as Bill Clinton’s wife.  She is also the default position for US foreign policy, which Trump will be under pressure to adhere to. So let us spend no more time on Trump but turn to Hillary Clinton. What candidates say on the hustings and in interviews tends to be lacking in substance, so let us focus on a prepared speech to an elite foreign policy forum by a past and future adviser, Wendy Sherman.

Continued in Part 2


Tim Beal is a New Zealand-based scholar whose area of expertise is the geopolitics of Asia. He is the author of North Korea: The Struggle against American Power (2005) and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War (2011) and an occasional columnist for the Washington-based website NK News.

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