When Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea five years ago, few would have predicted that his hold on power would be more stable than that of his South Korean counterpart. Yet today, Kim remains comfortably in control, whereas South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been impeached and suspended from office by her country’s parliament on corruption charges.

The regional imbalance created by these dynamics should concern the next U.S. administration. Park’s impeachment has made South Korea more vulnerable to the growing threat from North Korea—and in that sense, the United States has become more vulnerable, too. As Pyongyang’s belligerence increases and South Korea’s ability to respond remains hampered by domestic political problems, it will fall to the next U.S. president to counter Kim’s aggression and to pressure him to curtail repression at home.


In the past four years alone, North Korea has conducted three nuclear and three long-range missile tests. In the face of such boldness, Park has stood firm. Unlike her predecessors, she has strengthened South Korea’s sanctions against the Kim regime in response to each of its provocations. In February 2016, after one such missile test, her government even shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a source of cash for Pyongyang’s weapons program and the last remnant of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Park’s supporters fear that the vacuum brought about by her downfall will embolden Pyongyang while empowering left-leaning domestic parties that favor a softer line against Kim’s regime. They are right to worry. In the coming year, Kim may test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland, further raising the threat his country poses to the world. If a candidate from one of South Korea’s opposition parties becomes the country’s next president after the elections later this year, it would be good news for Kim, since every opposition contender favors cooperating with rather than coercing North Korea, despite a quarter-century of evidence demonstrating the ineffectiveness of that approach. Moon Jae-in, the frontrunner in the race to be the next president, has made no secret of his sanguine views on North Korea policy.

Testing a missile engine in Cholsan County, North Korea.
Testing a missile engine in Cholsan County, North Korea.

That makes a strong U.S. policy even more important. Should the new administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and its allies fail to respond forcefully to North Korean nuclear or missile tests, China and Russia may be discouraged from backing up their condemnations of North Korea’s actions with meaningful cuts to aid and trade. The trouble is that although Washington can surely count on Japan to take a tough stand against Pyongyang, it also needs South Korea to do the same. If Seoul chooses to appease Pyongyang by providing it with financial assistance, for example, the loopholes in the global sanctions regime will grow, and the fissures in the U.S.-led alliance will widen.


The good news is that there is still time for the United States to develop an effective North Korea policy of its own. There is bipartisan support in Washington for tougher financial sanctions against Pyongyang. Last year, Congress passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which calls for the United States to squeeze the flow of money to Pyongyang and counter the information blockade that North Korea’s leadership wages against its own people until the country becomes less threatening abroad and oppressive at home. The act does not seek to induce the collapse of the regime, but it implicitly accepts the risk of that outcome by calling for keeping up the pressure on Pyongyang until it changes its behavior.

With this new tough sanctions bill in hand, the first step in the next administration’s East Asia policy should be for Trump to send his secretary of state to Seoul and Tokyo as soon as possible after taking office. In February 2009, less than a month after Barack Obama became U.S. president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled to East Asia on her first overseas trip. (That spring, as the new Obama administration gauged the prospect of engaging Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, conducted a long-range missile test and a nuclear test.) This time, Trump’s top diplomat should not stop in Beijing, as Clinton did. The goal should be to unify Japan and South Korea against Pyongyang and its Chinese sponsors, sending an early, strong message that the United States will take its own initiatives against North Korea in spite of Chinese obstruction and in close cooperation with its regional allies.

Then, in the early fall, Trump should visit China, Japan, and South Korea himself. Trump should make clear that the United States will no longer tolerate Pyongyang’s intransigence or continued violations of UN Security Council resolutions. He should tell China’s leadership that the United States will sanction Chinese individuals and entities that continue to enable Pyongyang’s illicit activities, as called for by last year’s sanctions act.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, November 215.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Seoul, November 215.
Song Kyung-Seok / Pool / REUTERS

The president should make clear that Washington will push harder on Pyongyang’s weak points: its financial dependence on illicit activities, such as proliferation, money laundering, and human trafficking, and its egregious human rights violations. The United States could do so by faithfully implementing the mandatory provisions of the sanctions act, which make it incumbent on the executive to block Pyongyang’s foreign partners, which are mostly Chinese, from the U.S. financial system. The United States needs to make it more costly for Beijing to facilitate the transfer of weapons-related materiel and banned luxury goods to the Kim regime. Washington is already well positioned to pursue such a course: besides last year’s sanctions legislation, Trump would have several UN Security Council resolutions and the unique financial leverage of the U.S. Treasury Department on his side.

Finally, Trump should publicly call on North Korea to close its concentration camps, in which as many as 120,000 North Koreans are imprisoned. No U.S. or South Korean president has ever made this basic demand in public, likely out of fear of derailing the negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program—not even in the aftermath of the publication of a landmark 2014 UN report noting that Pyongyang’s crimes do “not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” But the nuclear negotiations are already dead, and a firm stance from the U.S. president, backed up by increased funding for the transmission of outside information into the North, could make the maintenance of the camps more costly for Pyongyang. The growing global consensus that Kim should be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity should be a fact told and retold to the North Korean people—both because informing North Koreans about the nature of the regime is the right thing to do and because doing so would undermine Kim.

Whether South Korea’s domestic politics becomes a liability for the United States’ strategy toward North Korea may depend on what the Trump administration does in its first few months. Combining coercive measures with conventional diplomacy, military deterrence, and the dissemination of outside information to ordinary North Koreans—a practice that appears to be affecting public opinion in the country, despite the low amount of U.S. funding for it—could help offset the pressure that the next South Korean government might take off of Pyongyang. Such efforts are essential. Unless Washington fills the gap left by a South Korean government that may grow weak or prone to appeasement, Kim’s repressive government will continue to strengthen itself while abusing its long-suffering people. Failing to do so would invite Kim to further consolidate his power through terror and boost the probability of future nuclear aggression. 

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  • SUNG-YOON LEE is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
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