Before his visit to Korea, it was a matter of discussion whether Donald Trump would make inflammatory remarks in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) of Korea, and thus provoke dangerous reactions from Pyongyang. But that did not happen. What happened was the US top leader’s confirmation to commit to security in Northeast Asia in a stable manner.
His first foreign visit after Hawaii was to Tokyo, on November 5-7. The host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was the first to forge direct personal ties with the elected candidate Donald Trump one year ago. In fact, Mr Abe is one of the few foreign leaders Mr Trump can talk to in a manner he likes. That personal connection is even more important when Donald Trump might make a grave decision concerning DPRK, which affects security of Japan and South Korea. It seems that the two leaders candidly discussed this kind of matters in many hours during their golf tour near Tokyo. The visit confirmed the US President’s endorsement of the long-term US-Japan alliance cooperation, which was already strongly advanced by his high officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The US forces, which Japan hosts and supports, are indispensable for the US presence in the Western Pacific, and it is natural for the US President, not a candidate, to buttress these long-established assets.
Next, President Trump went to Seoul, where he made a speech at National Assembly on November 7. This visit also confirmed the US-ROK alliance commitment. He did not employ too inflammatory words many Koreans dislike, but did warn that if the regime in Pyongyang continued military development, it would not become safer but put itself in grave danger.
The reinforcement of one side might make a provoking signal to the other, but does not necessarily do so. The US deployment of aircraft carriers did not provoke Pyongyang, and Kim Jong-un kept relatively silent for a while. While it is natural for Beijing and Moscow to express concerns about military pressure from the US, it is also natural for the US-ROK alliance to prepare for contingencies which DPRK’s growing capabilities and dangerous actions might cause. More serious consequences might happen if North Koreans wrongly judge that Americans would not fight for South Korea or Japan, as was the case when the Korean War started in 1950.
Beijing and Moscow also agree on imposing costs in response to DPRK provocations, though they stress solution through dialogue more than Donald Trump, who thinks that dialogue without sufficient pressure allowed DPRK’s military development. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council, after negotiations for the extent of toughness, agreed on resolutions to impose more sanctions to limit the flow of resources DPRK can use for its military development. The US-China cooperation in this sense was again confirmed when Trump visited Beijing on November 8-10, after Seoul. Trump also emphasized direct personal ties with PRC President Xi Jinping and appreciated the cordial welcome by China. Although UN resolutions alone cannot persuade Kim to give up his nuclear-missile programs, the important thing is that DPRK’s recent courses of military adventures are rewarded with increased costs.
In sum, Donald Trump in these visits did not provoke a crisis or destabilize alliance relations in the Northeast Asian region. Rather, he made the US alliances more credible to respond to crises. This and international sanctions are important pillars to send strong messages to DPRK. In the US-China relations, other severe issues, such as the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, might become intensified sometime soon, but these can be managed better by the functioning alliances than by disordered or unstable behaviors of regional players.