Editor's Note

Won Gon Park, the Chair of the EAI North Korea Studies Center, examines the potential impact of the U.S. presidential election on the stability of South Korea. He highlights that regardless of the election outcome, the U.S. will pursue a “major transformation” in its alliance management system. Park urges the ROK government to prepare for U.S. pressure on South Korea to assume a greater role in defending itself against the North Korean threat. Additionally, he emphasizes that the ultimate goal of South Korea’s DPRK policy should remain complete denuclearization, and asserts that the primary stakeholders in the denuclearization negotiations should shift from solely the U.S. and DPRK to mainly involving the two Koreas.

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With the U.S. presidential election only six months away, the outcome remains shrouded in uncertainty. As both incumbent President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump clinched their party nominations for the presidential race, predicting the winner is as challenging as it was in the last election. The race is expected to be extremely close, with a narrow margin of votes in key swing states like Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan likely determining the outcome. Trump secured all five states in 2014, while Biden won all of them in 2020. The real economy, recovery of minority support for Biden, issues with illegal immigration, the war in Gaza, and Trump’s legal troubles are some of the numerous factors that could influence the electoral dynamics leading up to November.


The outcome of the U.S. presidential election is of global interest. As many countries hastily prepare for the possible return of Donald Trump, who had shaken up the world order during his four-year tenure since 2016 with his America First policy, South Korea (ROK) is no exception. While no significant progress was made, a historic event occurred under Trump’s leadership as the leaders of North Korea (DPRK) and the U.S. met for the first time since the Korean War, aiming to resolve North Korea’s nuclear issue. At the same time, South Korea encountered unprecedented demands to quintuple its burden sharing, putting immense pressure on the ROK-U.S. alliance. However, the situation on the Korean Peninsula may still evolve even if Biden gets re-elected, influenced by changes in DPRK behavior or shifts within the “ironclad” alliance. This article explores the potential impact of the U.S. presidential election on the stability of the Korean Peninsula.


I. U.S. Presidential Election and DPRK Denuclearization


Regardless of the election outcome, the issue of DPRK denuclearization is likely to recede from the incoming president’s list of priorities. Both Biden and Trump are expected to focus more on the war in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as U.S.-China relations, likely keeping the DPRK nuclear issue largely at the status quo. Early in his term, the Trump administration attempted denuclearization negotiations, but these stalled when DPRK ceased dialogue at the end of 2019. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has adopted a “calibrated, practical approach,” which has been widely assessed as not very different from the “strategic patience” strategy under the Obama administration (Baker and Kanno-Youngs 5/21/2022).


While both Biden and Trump have experience with the North Korean nuclear issue, their approaches have been less proactive due to their shared perception of North Korea as untrustworthy and the goal of denuclearization as unattainable. Some speculate that Trump’s return could revive initiatives similar to the “Korean Peninsula Peace Process” during 2018 and 2019 (Lee 3/12/2024), though this is improbable. Given Trump’s emphasis on cost efficiency and his previous conclusion that North Korean issues are intractable, he is unlikely to readily engage in meetings with Kim again. Trump may propose negotiations that involve partially lifting sanctions in exchange for North Korea taking symbolic steps toward denuclearization, such as suspending nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launches. However, considering potential criticism from mainstream U.S. strategists and the ROK, Trump would likely approach such negotiations with caution.


Alternatively, North Korea might take the initiative to break through on its own. It could seek negotiations with the U.S. early in the following year, post-presidential election. The “Frontal Breakthrough” policy announced by DPRK in December 2019 is a long-term strategy aimed at maximizing its nuclear capabilities (KCNA 1/1/2020) to solidify its status as a de facto nuclear state. To this end, North Korea might negotiate to lift sanctions while retaining some level of nuclear capacity.


If North Korea indeed views Trump as a more favorable negotiating partner, it might conduct its seventh nuclear test before the November election. This could enable Trump to leverage the event as a political weapon against Biden, framing the incumbent president’s DPRK policy as a total failure. Conversely, if Trump returns to the White House, DPRK may attempt to negotiate the partial lifting of sanctions in exchange for suspending nuclear tests. Both Biden and Trump would likely be open to dialogue with DPRK without additional preconditions if North Korea demonstrates a readiness to re-engage in negotiations.


II. Biden vs. Trump: Implications for ROK-U.S. Alliance


Regardless of who wins the election, the U.S. will continue transforming its alliance structure in Indo-Pacific region. This transformation will shift from the traditional hub-and-spoke model to a lattice-like structure, as highlighted by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel through various platforms (Fontaine and Campbell 2023; CSIS 2024; CNN 4/14/2024). Rather than unilaterally “protecting” its regional allies, the U.S. emphasizes “projecting” collective strength alongside its allies to collaboratively address conflicts. This strategy aims to establish diverse minilateral bodies and, by tightly knitting the alliance network, to collectively maintain regional security with a focus on countering China. The lattice-like structure is designed to enable a joint response system that can effectively counteract retaliatory actions, such as China’s economic coercion campaigns against South Korea and Australia.


Furthermore, the U.S. expects its alliance network to act as a “force multiplier,” maximizing military strength through enhanced military cooperation—a concept that Defense Secretary Lloyd James Austin III and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2021) highlighted during their visit to South Korea immediately after Biden’s inauguration. This approach would significantly boost U.S. military efficacy by establishing a security cooperation system that optimizes the military strengths and geopolitical positions of its treaty allies.


As Ambassador Emanuel emphasized, with the U.S. set on a major transformation of its alliance structure, changes in the ROK-U.S. alliance are inevitable. The U.S. plans to extend the role of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) from solely responding to the DPRK threat to include duties throughout the entire Indo-Pacific region. This area is now considered a single cohesive “theater,” with strategies in place to utilize all forward-deployed forces, suggesting that USFK could be involved in a Taiwan contingency. Meanwhile, in a Korean contingency, regional armed forces such as U.S. Forces Japan would also be activated. The U.S. intends to integrate the bilateral ROK-U.S. system into a “latticework,” strengthening ROK-U.S.-Japan security cooperation and potentially inviting South Korea, alongside Japan, to join AUKUS Pillar 2.


The U.S. alliance transformation imposes significant demands on South Korea. First, it must enhance its capability to independently counter the North Korean threat, as it can no longer expect the deployment of U.S. augmentation forces included in the joint operation plan (OPLAN) during a Korean contingency. Many close aides of Trump have explicitly stated that South Korea must take a leading role in responding to the North Korean threat (Lee 4/28/2023; Colby and Maxwell 3/2/2024). A second Trump administration would push for advanced ROK response capabilities and greater investment in defense, citing high defense costs and the need to counter China. Consequently, South Korea must secure the capability to independently respond to North Korea’s conventional forces. Trump may also expect the ROK military to play a role in keeping China in check.


While South Korea continues to rely on U.S. extended deterrence in the face of DPRK’s nuclear threat, the forthcoming election could significantly alter this arrangement. Should Trump be re-elected, an increase in defense cost sharing with ROK is likely to be one of his first demands. Based on his previous term, Trump may seek contributions beyond the framework of the existing Special Measures Agreement (SMA). During his presidency, he billed ROK for costs associated with joint military exercises and the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, which are not included in the SMA. Given Trump’s tendency to disregard existing frameworks, his return could complicate cost-sharing negotiations beyond the 12th SMA. This issue is particularly sensitive because the deployment of U.S. strategic assets, like ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to deter DPRK and ROK-U.S. military exercises tailored to DPRK nuclear scenarios, are critical pillars of the extended deterrence framework institutionalized by President Biden and President Yoon Suk Yeol over the past few years. Charging ROK for these costs could undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments on the Korean Peninsula, potentially fueling calls for ROK’s nuclear armament.


Concurrently, the debate over the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) is expected to intensify. Both Biden and Trump, with their primary focus on countering China in the Indo-Pacific, are likely to accelerate the OPCON transfer to make the ROK military responsible for the Peninsula’s defense while enhancing the strategic flexibility of USFK. However, the Biden administration might approach this relatively cautiously, as retaining OPCON allows the U.S. to regulate the ROK military and avoid becoming entangled in an inter-Korean conflict.


A major concern is Trump’s potential revocation of extended deterrence, as hinted at by Elbridge Colby, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development during the Trump administration. There are emerging arguments that the U.S. should not provide extended deterrence to South Korea, fearing that North Korea might target the U.S. mainland. Some even suggest that the U.S. should tolerate South Korea’s nuclear armament (Kang 4/25/2024). This stance fundamentally undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been upheld since 1968, and abandons efforts toward North Korean denuclearization. Given Trump’s unpredictability and penchant for flouting norms, such a shift cannot be dismissed.


III. ROK's Way Forward


With these projections on the horizon, how and what should South Korea prepare for? The ROK must uphold the complete denuclearization of North Korea as its ultimate goal. Despite the increasing voices of those who view denuclearization as unrealistic advocating for nuclear armament negotiations (Davies 10/9/2022), ROK must remain committed to disarming DPRK’s entire nuclear capability. It is essential for ROK to continue advancing negotiations that clearly define the steps toward total denuclearization.


The North Korean nuclear issue represents an existential threat for ROK, especially since DPRK first tested its KN-23 short-range ballistic missile in May 2019 and has since developed and forward-deployed nuclear capabilities targeting ROK. Given that DPRK is unlikely to achieve a stable second-strike capability against the U.S., the primary stakeholders in this nuclear crisis should be ROK and DPRK, not the U.S. and DPRK. In other words, through comprehensive cooperation with the U.S., ROK must pivot the negotiation framework to focus on inter-Korean dialogue.


In anticipation of DPRK’s return to the negotiation table, likely early next year, ROK must prepare its strategic approach. Although deterrence remains a priority in the current state of affairs where DPRK continues to enhance its nuclear arsenal, dialogue focusing on denuclearization should also be emphasized, in accordance with President Yoon’s Audacious Initiative.


The evolving U.S. alliance dynamics necessitate a strategic decision from ROK. With the U.S. opting to transition away from a singular, Peninsula-centered bilateral alliance, South Korea must adapt to this transformed structure. Consequently, ROK should bolster its superior conventional forces to counter potential conventional attacks from DPRK. Additionally, ROK needs to formulate a strategy against DPRK’s stated intent to deploy low-yield nuclear weapons. Both ROK and U.S. should further develop their Tailored Deterrence Strategy (TDS) and the Conventional & Nuclear Integration (CNI), which combines ROK’s conventional forces, including the Three-Axis system, with U.S. strategic nuclear assets.


In response to U.S. adopting a lattice-like alliance structure, ROK should establish both mini- and multilateral alliance networks. It should consider joining AUKUS Pillar 2 and explore cooperative measures within frameworks such as ROK-U.S.-Japan, ROK-U.S.-Australia, and ROK-U.S.-India. Although former President Trump showed a preference for exerting pressure on allies at a bilateral level, he may also leverage existing mini-multilateral fronts rather than completely disregarding them. Should Trump demand that ROK cover costs not included in the SMA, ROK should negotiate for compensatory measures. For example, ROK could seek rights to reprocess plutonium by amending the ROK-U.S. Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, or pursue the development of nuclear-powered submarines. Additionally, the purchase of high-cost U.S. military equipment, such as the SM-3 missiles, could serve as leverage in cost-sharing negotiations.


If Trump were to revoke U.S. commitment to extended deterrence and reject the 1968 nonproliferation regime, thereby permitting the nuclear armament of its non-nuclear allies, this action would present a significant shift in the international order. In such a scenario, South Korea should respond appropriately to align with these new geopolitical realities.


In sum, South Korea confronts several challenges in the foreseeable future, irrespective of the U.S. election results. It must manage the transformation of its alliance with the U.S. while also preparing for the escalating nuclear capabilities of North Korea. However, the potential re-election of Trump, who fundamentally altered the global order of rules and norms during his previous tenure, represents the most formidable challenge yet.




Baker, Peter and Zolan Kanno-Youngs. 2022. “Rejecting ‘Love Letters’ to North Korea, Biden Offers Carrots and Sticks Instead.” The New York Times. May 21. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/21/world/asia/



Blinken, Antony J. and Lloyd J. Austin III. 2021. “America’s partnerships are ‘force multipliers’ in the world.” The Washingtion Post. March 14. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021



Colby, Elbridge and David Maxwell. 2024. “[Washington Talk] U.S. Cities Canot be Sacrificed for ROK vs. U.S. Defense Commitment Shall Not Be Doubted (in Korean),” Voice of America. March 2. https://www.voakorea.com/a/7510924.html


CSIS. 2024. “Previewing Prime Minister Kishida’s Visit to Washington: A Conversation with Two Ambassadors.” CSIS Japan Chair. April 8. https://www.csis.org/events/previewing-prime-minister-kishidas-visit-washington-conversation-two-ambassadors


Davies, Christian. 2022. “’North Korea has already won’: US urged to abandon denucleaisation ‘farce.’” Financial Times. October 9. https://www.ft.com/content/bf3fd056-8d74-4626-ba80-08bad80ca7dd


Fontaine, Richard and Kurt Campbell. 2024. “AUKUS: Securing the Indo-Paific, A Conversation with Kurt Campbell.” Center for a New American Security. April 3. https://www.cnas.org/publications/transcript/aukus-securing-the-indo-pacific-a-conversation-with-kurt-campbell


Kang, Taehwa. 2024. “[Exclusive] Trump’s Foreign Policy Aide Tells ‘ROK to Consider Nuclear Armament (in Korean).’” Joongang Ilbo. April 25. https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/25244983#home


Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). 2020. “Report on 5th Plenary Meeting of 7th C.C., WPK.” January 1.


Lee, Christy. 2023. “Experts: Declaration May Not Ease SKorea’s Concern Over US Nuclear Commitment.” Voice of America. April 28. https://www.voanews.com/a/experts-declaration-may-not-ease-skorea-s-concern-over-us-nuclear-commitment/7071451.html


__________. 2024. “Analysis: Does North Korea’s Kim Want Another Summit with Trump?” Voice of America. March 12. https://www.voanews.com/a/analysis-does-north-korea-s-kim-want-another-summit-with-trump-/7524941.html


Zakaria, Fareed. 2024. “On GPS: Why Japan is one of America’s most pivotal allies.” CNN. April 14. https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2024/04/14/




Won Gon PARK is the Chair of EAI Center for North Korea Studies and a Professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University.



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