American Vice President Mike Pence recently visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to deliver a speech, and emphasised that the American policy toward North Korea would be changing in the Trump era. Standing near the border between the two countries, Pence made it clear Trump would abandon the previous strategy of ‘strategic patience’ employed by the Obama administration in favour of a ‘tough talk’ approach. While ‘strategic patience’ under Obama hoped to utilise international pressure by collaborating with the UN, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia to force North Korea to denuclearize, the new ‘tough talk’ strategy emphasises a renewed focus on recruiting China to stop supporting its neighbour. Trump was surprised to learn that China accounts for 80 per cent of North Korea’s trade, and is optimistic the country could use that leverage against North Korea to prompt change.
The renewed energy in plans to pressure North Korean denuclearization stems from the country’s recent fifth nuclear test, and the expectation of soon conducting a sixth. Pyongyang has been working on an accelerated project to develop missiles that could reach the continental U.S. with small nuclear weapons placed in the nosecones. The Trump administration feels North Korea’s growing progress in producing deliverable nuclear weapons requires more urgency; the time for ‘strategic patience’ has run out. In his speech, Pence emphasised the goal to peaceably resolve the issue through redoubled diplomatic and economic pressure, and hopefully with an increased Chinese role in efforts.
But despite all this new tough talk, is Trump’s North Korean foreign policy strategy really all that new? It may actually not be that different from the policies of his predecessors at the foundational level.
North Korea first began seriously developing its nuclear weapons during the Clinton administration, which tried to prevent the build-up through a diplomatic agreement. This strategy failed after Pyongyang continued its nuclear program, violating the agreement. The Bush administration attempted to utilise global pressure through the ‘six party talks,’ which also failed, as North Korea launched its first nuclear test in 2006. During the Obama presidency, despite the using ‘strategic patience,’ North Korea launched four more nuclear tests.
Previous presidents have all attempted to rally the international community and use economic leverage and diplomacy to encourage denuclearization. Despite the new policy tagline, ‘tough talk’ still relies heavily on global pressure, especially from China.
In fact, despite Trump’s unpredictable personality, flurry of tweets, and promises of an unorthodox presidency, he may be falling into a pattern of American presidents entering office with hard-line rhetoric against China before encountering the political realities of dealing with a country as large and powerful. Central elements to Trump’s campaign revolved around reducing the trade deficit with China, putting a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods if Beijing did not cooperate with fairer trade terms, and bringing jobs back overseas. It only took 83 days for Trump to completely change his China trade policy, switching from vowing to beat up Beijing over trade abuses to offering pre-emptive trade concessions. Around the time of his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi in Florida, Trump backtracked and appeared to have offered trade concessions in order for Beijing to finally use the full extent of its economic leverage over North Korea. It is unclear how China will respond to Trump. There is also the possibility that his change will undercut credibility to his threats, and reveal him as a ‘geopolitical neophyte who blinks in the face of crisis.’
This trope of hard-line presidential rhetoric before encountering the political realities of dealing with China’s power is one with which China is familiar. In an earlier interview with Foreign Policy, the government suggested it would wait out the initial toughness period of the Trump administration while laying the groundwork for when the new administration would finally come around to a more diplomatic approach, following the pattern of previous administrations. It is unclear how China will respond to the offered concessions, because while the U.S. is China’s biggest export market, China is also the top trading partner of most Asian, Africa, and Central Asian countries, as well as being a nuclear power with the third most powerful military in the world. While Trump may have ambitions to take advantage of China’s economic leveraging abilities with North Korea, he is already encountering the political realities and difficulties of attempting to push around such a large, powerful state.
Many expected Trump’s presidency to contain radical foreign policy changes and to break with the tradition of American internationalism in use since 1945. However, despite his promises of putting America first and stepping back from the global stewardship role, Trump’s National Security Cabinet is beginning to get its feet, and Trump himself is beginning to realise the situation is ‘not so easy’. He has begun to encounter the political realities surrounding negotiations, realising that succeeding in North Korea may require concessions to China, the country he railed against during a large part of his campaign. Now in office, and with his Cabinet, the Trump administration seems to be keeping with American foreign policy traditions, even emphasising the need for ‘patience’ amidst the new unveiling of a ‘tough talk’ stance. Despite all the focus on personality, and the prospect on an unorthodox presidency, Trump’s policy on North Korea, even with its new name, still relies on the same elements as previous administrations – a dependency on powerful, hard-to-control China, and an element of patience.