As President Trump was kicking off the first state visit under the progressive administration of Moon Jae In, the life-or-death question in South Korean minds was whether Trump intended to take an America-first or an alliance-first approach in response to the growing North Korean threat.
How Trump views American alliance commitments to defend South Korea from North Korean aggression has become an urgent question as North Korea has expanded the range of its missiles and the yield of its nuclear explosions. When the North Korean foreign minister threatened an above ground thermonuclear test in response to President Trump’s threat at the United Nations in September to destroy the country, there was every reason for South Koreans to worry that the war of words might trigger a military conflict, with potentially catastrophic consequences for South Korea. They may have been reassured somewhat when Trump, at a joint press conference with Moon in Seoul, urged the North Koreans to “come to the table and make a deal,” stating that military options are a last resort and that the current strategy remains one of economic pressure and political isolation.
Yet despite what Trump called “movement” on the issue, denuclearization remains a distant goal—and Trump’s ultimate strategy an open question. North Korean leaders believe that the ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons will finally even the nuclear playing field, after it has lived under what it sees as the threat of American nuclear attacks for decades. Trump has stated that the United States will not tolerate vulnerability to a North Korean nuclear strike capability—which is getting ever-closer as the North approaches the means to fit a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile—and that “Rocket Man” is on a suicide mission. But the South Korean capital city of Seoul is only a few dozen miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and has lived with the risk of destruction from North Korean artillery and rocket launchers for decades, making redundant the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons that Koreans have lived with following North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.