Seoul, South Korea – A year into his presidency, Donald Trump has made the Korean Peninsula, in particular North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programmes, one of his top foreign policy priorities.
During his election campaign, he expressed his willingness to accept North Korean leader Kim Jong-un‘s visit to the US, and hold direct talks with him over hamburgers, instead of a state dinner.
In the meantime, he stoked fears in South Korea by repeatedly expressing his strong dissatisfaction over the burden of sharing the costs of US military forces stationed in South Korea, even suggesting the withdrawal of American troops, unless Seoul would pay more.
At the same time, he threatened to discard a 2011 bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) claiming that the trade deal was unfair to the US, pointing to a huge trade deficit, especially, in the car and steel sectors.
After his inauguration, it became clear that his unnerving remarks were not just a stump speech, pandering to conservative voters for the election, but a prelude to a different reality.
Trump’s “unknown quantity” added a new factor to the North Korea equation, prompting concerns that frequent exchanges of harsh and sometimes even emotional rhetoric between the US president and North Korea could easily spiral out of control and lead to an armed conflict.
In response to North Korea’s successive missile tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), Trump warned Pyongyang would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
The North Korean leader responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged dotard” in a rare statement to the outside world.
In return, Trump further stepped up his rhetoric by saying that he could totally destroy the regime, adding that “Rocket Man”, referring to Kim, is “on a suicide mission” in his speech to the UN General Assembly, and later he went on to Twitter, saying: “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old’, when I would NEVER call him “short and fat’.”
For the first time in more than two decades, South Koreans became worried. Some, especially the older generation, asked whether they needed to have an emergency plan.
This was a worrying development in that South Koreans have become accustomed and apathetic towards what have become rather routine and empty threats from Pyongyang since North Korea’s top negotiator’s threat to turn Seoul into ‘sea of fire’ prompted widespread fears and many families stocked up instant noodles and water in 1994.
Furthermore, Trump’s willingness to consider a military option widened a crack between Washington and Seoul, with South Korea’s new liberal President Moon Jae-in repeatedly vowing to prevent another war on the Korean Peninsula.
Even among conservatives in South Korea, who have long held a ‘dogmatic’ belief in the South Korea-US alliance, ‘forged in blood’, doubt began to rise over whether the US would indeed come to South Korea’s rescue, given Trump’s “America First” policy and willingness to withdraw troops.
Despite Trump’s self-applause for this new strategy, there were more more sceptical voices whether there were any difference in terms of actual policy between what former President Barack Obama started towards the latter part of his administration and where Trump picked up, besides rhetoric.
Trump managed to turn around his image on his first visit to Seoul in November.
Beating the public’s expectations, his speech at the National Assembly received surprisingly positive responses for portraying South Korea’s modern history in a beautiful way, reaffirming the US commitment to the alliance, and rebuking North Korea’s leadership in stern yet, measured language.
As the two Koreas held landmark high-level talks earlier this month, to discuss North Korea’s participation of the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, following Kim’s peace overture in his new year address, Moon openly praised Trump, saying he should be largely credited, indicating that Trump’s strategy to put maximum pressure and sanctions may have brought the North to the table of dialogue.
“The South Korean government is now engaging with the North Korean government in dialogue and the North Korean delegation visiting South Korea in February,” James Kim, a researcher at Seoul-based think-tank Asan Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“We’re in a very different place than what people thought even two, three, six months ago,” he added.
The real question is what will happen next once the Olympics and Paralympics ends in March.
South Korea and the US are due to resume the major annual military exercises called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which Pyongyang often angrily reacts.
North Korea could use the exercise as an excuse to achieve its long-cherished goal of being recognised as a nuclear state by conducting more ICBM tests, possibly over the Pacific, and proving its mastery of technology to fire a missile, tipped with a nuclear warhead, capable of reaching the US mainland.
If and when that happens, a red line is crossed by any measure, and Trump will struggle with much fewer options.