There has been much focus on U.S. President Donald Trump’s travails with North Korea. Despite initiating a historically unprecedented outreach to North Korea – including both the first meeting between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korea supreme leader and a first sitting U.S. president actually stepping into North Korea – Trump has achieved little substantively.
The process and imagery especially have been dazzling, but below all the glitz, there has been little movement on core issues. North Korea still has all its nuclear warheads and missile. The U.S. still insists on sanctioning North Korea. The peninsular stalemate is ongoing.
Election years offer a chance for a re-evaluation of the major policy initiatives of the current administration. Much of the Democrats’ interest in their Iowa debate this month focused on Iran. Trump nearly launched a war against that country twice. But Trump may well strike a deal with North Korea this year if only to enhance his re-election chances. At some point, the surviving Democratic candidates, and almost certainly the nominee, will address Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons.
So far though, comments in the debates have been quite sparing. Not even China got much mention at this month’s gathering. As Daniel Drezner pointed out, the candidates’ foreign policy commentary seems to flow from their domestic critiques of either the economy, for the progressive candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders), or Trump himself (Biden, Peter Buttigieg). A nice summary of their North Korea positions is here. There is not much there which is new: traditional emphases on negotiations, deterrence, and allies, with a focus on (highly unlikely) denuclearization.