Former US President Donald Trump campaigns in Coralville, Iowa, on Dec. 13. (AFP/Yonhap)
A US news outlet has suggested that former US President Donald Trump is considering a new approach to North Korea if he returns to office, one that would entail recognizing it as a nuclear weapons state while attempting to persuade it to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.
Trump has denied such claims, but also stated that he does “get along well with” North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Politico reported on Wednesday that the former president is considering offering financial incentives to North Korea to stop making new bombs, citing three anonymous sources familiar with his plans.
The sources said Trump might stop trying to convince Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal if he returns to office. Instead of wasting time on futile talks, he could choose to focus on competing with China. One source commented that Trump “knows he wants a deal,” and that he is very motivated to strike an agreement with North Korea.
Even if North Korea agrees to freeze its nuclear capabilities, there is still a need for a verification system to ensure that North Korea keeps its word, the sources said.
This approach is similar to the nuclear disarmament policy that has been raised in the wake of the Biden administration’s failure to make any progress on talks with North Korea. The policy is based on the recognition that advancements in the North’s nuclear capabilities make it difficult to insist on the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program.
“Full denuclearization should remain a goal, but in the meantime the US, South Korea, and Japan need to consider some form of arms-control proposal that would limit North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile systems in exchange for a reduction of sanctions,” said Richard Haas, former president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, in an article published last year.
Successive US administrations have stuck to the goal of complete denuclearization because of concerns that allowing North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons would undermine the international nonproliferation regime. Washington has also sought transitional solutions to halt North Korea’s nuclear program, even temporarily, in exchange for food aid.
If Trump is reelected in November 2024 and pushes for sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear arms development, this could have major ramifications for South Korea, depending on the ultimate goal and direction of such policies.
While this could be seen as flexibility in the pursuit of complete denuclearization, it could also have the effect of recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear power.
“A proposal that freezes North Korea’s program while not denuclearizing completely in the near or medium term might be a more realistic approach given the current situation,” Frank Aum, a Northeast Asia senior expert at the US Institute of Peace, told Politico. However, he also noted that this carries the risk that South Korea could pursue its own nuclear weapons out of security concerns.
Trump responded to the report on social media, saying it was “a made up story, DISINFORMATION, put out by Democrat Operatives in order to mislead and confuse.”
Trump also stated that “the only thing accurate in the story” is that he gets along with Kim Jong-un, hinting at the possibility of talks between the two if Trump returns to power.
Trump has touted his three meetings with Kim as an accomplishment, claiming that North Korea halted its nuclear and missile tests during his presidency but resumed them under Biden.
By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent
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