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A burger with Kim?

November 15, 2016

It is difficult to predict what course the US will take against North Korea when President-elect Trump takes office. Trump's pre-election statements about the communist country and its leader Kim are pretty unclear.

Kombi-Bild Kim Jong Un Donald Trump

Can a US leader have a direct conversation with North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un? It is no problem for Donald Trump, as the US president-elect made it clear during his election campaign on several occasions.

"Why not? What is wrong with talking?" Trump was quoted as saying in May 2016 by Reuters news agency.

Trump said he wanted to talk Kim out of his "damned nukes" even if the chances of success were minimal. The billionaire politician said he would even receive the North Korean leader in Washington.

"I won't host a state dinner for him. Same goes for the Chinese and others who rip us off," Trump said. Instead, he quipped, that he would host the communist leaders at the conference table, serving them hamburgers.

His statements were met with harsh criticism in the US, but in Pyongyang the Republican politician received praise. North Korea's state media hailed Trump as a "wise politician."

"I do not want to comment on those pre-election statements," Michael Madden, a lecturer at the US-Korea Institute at the Washington-based Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, told DW, admitting that Trump's comments about the isolated communist nation are certainly a breakthrough in bilateral relations. "But in the immediate future, this does not seem to be a realistic scenario," Madden said.

Avoid hasty conclusions

Madden warns against interpreting too much into what Trump had said during the election campaign about North Korea. "It would be unwise and misleading to try to interpret Trump's few public remarks to determine what his North Korea policy will be. I think his policy on the DPRK has yet to be fully formulated," the expert underlined.

Madden, however, concedes that Trump appears to be more open to direct contact with North Korea than the outgoing President Barack Obama.

In April 2009, the North unilaterally walked out of the so-called six-party talks, which included South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the US. Since then, official talks between Pyongyang and Washington have also been on hold. The US is currently exercising "strategic patience," in other words, non-interference, with North Korea. The US has repeatedly called on North Korean officials to denuclearize the state as a prerequisite for the resumption of direct talks.

Pyongyang's insistence on negotiations without any preconditions has so far been rejected by President Obama. The fact that North Korea carried out five of its six nuclear tests during Obama's presidency has been a topic of interest for the Republicans in the US who blame the Obama administration for its lack of assertiveness towards the communist country.

Südkorea TV-Programm Atomtest Nordkorea
On September 9, North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear testImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

So what will be different when a Republican president takes charge in Washington? "Unless Trump makes the North Korea policy a major priority during his first 100 days in power, we are not likely to see a major departure from the current US policy and posture toward Pyongyang," Madden argued.

First reactions from South Korea

This is exactly what South Korea is hoping for - no change in the US policy towards its rival North.

In her congratulatory message, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said that Seoul and Washington would continue to exert pressure on the North Korean regime. According to South Korean media reports, in a 10-minute telephonic conversation, Trump assured South Korea that the alliance between the two countries would continue.

However, it appears that South Korea is facing difficulties with regard to the funding of some 28,500 US soldiers stationed on its territory. During the election campaign, Trump had repeatedly said that he would expect the US allies in the region to either partly, and in some cases, completely pay for the costs to protect their country. In a CNN interview, right after the fourth North Korean nuclear test on January 6, 2016, Trump described South Korea as a country that paid the US only "peanuts" for its help.

Trump also blasted at China in the interview. "The Chinese claim they have no control over North Korea. China has total control (over Pyongyang), and without the Chinese support, the North Koreans would not even have enough to eat, so China must take action and solve the problem," Trump said.

Nordkorea Südkorea Konflikt DMZ Chuck Hagel
Ex-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with South Korean military officials during a visit to the 'Demilitarized Zone' in 2013 Image: Getty Images/J. Martin-Pool