As uncertainty swirls around President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for dealing with North Korea, the rogue government in Pyongyang isn’t waiting, issuing a lengthy demand that the incoming administration halt Washington’s “hostile policy and nuclear threats” against the secretive nation.
North Korea’s increasingly menacing nuclear provocations are justifiable responses to “unprecedented recklessness” by the U.S. and its allies, according to a nine-page statement circulated Monday by the North Korean Foreign Ministry.
The release did not mention Mr. Trump by name but was explicitly critical of President Obama and appeared to be written as a warning to the incoming president to abandon the current administration’s approach.
“Obama himself has constantly heaped malicious slander and criticism on [North Korea],” said the release, claiming Pyongyang’s recent actions — including a “successful nuclear warhead detonation” on Sept. 9 — amount to countermeasures against “threats and sanctions” imposed by Washington and its allies.
The United States should “face up” to the reality of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang and “scrap its anachronistic hostile policy and nuclear threats against” North Korea, Pyongyang warned.
While the Trump transition team has not responded, a key Trump adviser recently signaled that North Korea will be on the next administration’s front burner. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser — said as much Saturday during a meeting with South Korea’s deputy presidential national security adviser, Cho Tae-yong.
Mr. Cho told South Korean reporters that Mr. Flynn also expressed a desire to further strengthen Washington’s “vital” alliance with Seoul, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news service.
Yonhap separately reported that Mr. Trump pledged to defend South Korea during a postelection phone call with President Park Geun-hye.
What remains to be seen is how and more specifically what the Trump team has in mind for dealing with young North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who has vowed to build a ballistic missile arsenal replete with nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration responded to Pyongyang’s fourth and fifth nuclear tests this year with a wave of economic sanctions. There have also been significant advancements in the Washington-Seoul military alliance — most notably with the recent deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system to South Korea, where roughly 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
But analysts say Pyongyang is undeterred and that Mr. Kim is poised to try to exploit the uncertainty around Mr. Trump’s transition process, as well as political chaos gripping Seoul, where Ms. Park is embroiled in a growing influence-peddling scandal as she heads into her final year in office.
“The democratic transitions in both the United States and South Korea make the next year or two a period of vulnerability,” said Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“This is even doubly so now that you’ve had two things,” Mr. Cronin said at discussion he hosted Monday. “One was the election of Donald Trump, and the other was the fact that President Park has gone into a tailspin politically.”
With Pyongyang “creeping closer and closer” to developing a “nuclear-tipped missile,” he said, “the Trump administration is going to have to put this issue high up as a priority.”
Others suggest Mr. Trump could end up being his own worst enemy on North Korea policy. On the campaign trail, he lamented that U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan don’t pay enough for American forces stationed in their nations. He said he might pull U.S. troops out of South Korea if Seoul doesn’t start paying more.
The South Korean government is paying about $800 million a year — roughly half the cost of housing the Americans — under a Special Measures Agreement in place through the end of next year.
Bruce Bechtol, a professor at Angelo State University in Texas, said the 50 percent Seoul is paying is notably less than the 75 percent that the Japanese government pays for U.S. military personnel deployed there, and the difference is likely to become politicized quickly once Mr. Trump takes office.
“I think you may hear from the Trump administration that they want to up [what Seoul is contributing] to 75 percent, and I think you’re going to see some major deliberations on that in 2017,” Mr. Bechtol said during Monday’s discussion at the Center for a New American Security.
“Perception is what this is all about,” he said. “Donald Trump said in his campaign that we are going to encourage our allies to participate more actively, fiscally in their own self-defense. So if we went from 50 to 75 percent, that would be Donald Trump keeping one of his campaign promises.”
The Obama administration has spent years trying pressure China — North Korea’s main economic partner and military ally — into containing Pyongyang.
Beijing’s lack of action has prompted frustration in Washington and raised speculation about how Mr. Trump may proceed.
The Chinese, Mr. Bechtol said, have “spoken a lot of rhetoric [but] I haven’t seen them do a lot. We’re still seeing [Chinese] aviation fuel go [to North Korea]. We’re still seeing coal go from North Korea to China.”
Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who also participated in the Monday discussion, said Beijing’s posture toward Pyongyang likely will depend on whether the Trump administration “decides to put pressure on China.”
Ms. Rapp-Hooper noted that the Obama administration recently announced sanctions against a Chinese company supporting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but she said its unclear whether Mr. Trump will proceed further with such “secondary sanctions against Chinese companies.”
Others say the Obama administration has unwisely put the onus on Beijing to contain North Korea and that Mr. Trump has a rare chance to leave the Chinese on the sidelines and reach out directly to Pyongyang.
“Donald Trump could have an opportunity early in his presidency to prove his Promethean negotiating skills,” said Joel S. Wit, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and Richard Sokolsky, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“At one point in the campaign, he expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, to try to work out a deal, asking: ‘What the hell is wrong with speaking?’” the two wrote in The Atlantic on Tuesday. “That position is at odds with the Obama administration’s apparent preference to treat North Korea, which is almost completely dependent on China for food and energy, as China’s problem.
“There may be a deal to negotiate with the North,” Mr. Wit and Mr. Sokolsky wrote. “But it will take the kind of strong leadership and negotiating prowess that Trump boasted about incessantly during the presidential campaign — and an inclination, which he’s quite clearly demonstrated, to buck the criticism of the foreign-policy establishment.”
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