The possibility of a return of Donald Trump to the White House would likely revive talks between the United States and North Korea and could raise doubts over any commitments made by Washington to Seoul under President Joe Biden, who is struggling in recent polls against Trump, experts said, Thursday.
Speaking at a forum held in Seoul on the 70th anniversary of South Korea's alliance with the U.S., scholars expressed concerns over the possibility of Trump's second term. If he wins the presidential election next year, he is expected to seek another round of negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, they said.
"In the early phase of his term, Trump will likely seek to make a deal. Trump appears to have the view that the negotiation efforts during his time in office are an unfinished legacy," said Chung Sung-yoon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-funded think tank.
Trump and Kim may have failed to reach a deal during summits in 2018 and 2019, but their personal relationship may continue to this day. After leaving office, Trump told associates that he remained in contact with Kim, according to "Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America," a book released last year. Just six months ago, Trump posted a congratulatory message for Kim on his Truth Social site after North Korea obtained a seat on the executive board of the World Health Organization.
Experts believe the chances of a successful deal between Washington and Pyongyang is low since the gap in opinion over North Korea's nuclear weapons proliferation will likely remain wide. But it is not entirely impossible, Chung said.
For Seoul, the worst-case scenarios include a partial or complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea or the annulment of what's agreed to under the Washington Declaration, as those issues could be discussed as part of U.S. negotiations with North Korea, experts said.
Hwang Ji-hwan, a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul, thinks a U.S. future government under Trump is unlikely to be bound by the Washington Declaration, a package of U.S. "guarantees" for deterrence against North Korean threats including the operation of a joint Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), given that the agreement is not legally binding.
"If Trump is elected, the South Korea-U.S. alliance will likely change profoundly," Hwang said. "Trump may demand more for defense costs ― possibly more than the previous amount. He would also perceive the operation of the NCG or the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula as money issues."
Just hours before the forum, Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean dictator, said in a statement that the country's development of advanced military hardware cannot be compromised for talks with the U.S.
"The sovereignty of an independent state can never be an agenda item for negotiations, and therefore, the DPRK (North Korea) will never sit face to face with the U.S. for that purpose," she said.
Experts said the statement ironically shows North Korea's intention for negotiation with the U.S.
"With the assumption that it can have the upper hand in possible negotiations with the U.S. by developing more things it could use for compromise, North Korea is expected to continue to advance its military capabilities," Hwang said.
According to a survey released in early November by The New York Times and Siena College, Biden is trailing Trump in five of the six most critical battleground states ― Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Biden is ahead only in Wisconsin, it showed.