After U.S. President Donald Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, the United States and the rest of the world are headed into unprecedented confusion. The global stock market crash shows the gravity of his infection. His hospitalization, with less than a month left before the Nov. 3 presidential election, will deal a critical blow to the heated race, including uncertainties about the second and third television debates slated for Oct. 15 and 22.
The uncertain future of America from Trump’s infection could adversely affect its core ally South Korea as the Moon Jae-in administration is ardently trying to address Korean Peninsula issues, including the denuclearization of North Korea. The paralysis of the U.S. administration under precarious circumstances can seriously hurt the Korean Peninsula peace process aggressively being pushed by the Moon administration.
As if to signify the graveness of the situation, the White House indefinitely suspended Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s scheduled visit to Seoul on Wednesday, but not his trip to Tokyo after Suga Yoshihide’s election as prime minister of Japan. It seems that Pompeo, a close aide to Trump and the fourth official to succeed Trump in times of emergency, could not afford to leave the United States for long.
As a result, the possibility of an October surprise — striking a remarkable deal with North Korea just ahead of the U.S. presidential election — also nearly vanished, with less than 20 days until the election after Trump is released from a two-week quarantine. Some diplomatic experts mention the possibility of Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, embarking on a trip to Washington to help break the deadlock in denuclearization talks. Given Trump’s health condition, however, chances are slim, meaning the Moon administration must address inter-Korean issues on its own.
It’s an ominous sign for the Moon administration which has been eager to find a breakthrough in the stalemate in inter-Korean relations. As the October surprise has almost disappeared, the government needs to accept the unexpected developments and prepare for the worst-possible case in the future.
Despite many uncertainties resulting from the U.S. president’s infection, one thing is certain: U.S.-China relations will deteriorate further. Given Trump persistently blames China for the global spread of Covid-19, Washington will most likely accelerate its attacks on Beijing.
At this juncture, Trump could be tempted to put into action his relentless China bashing. In that case, Korea could be asked to take sides with the United States despite its close ties with Beijing for trade. The Moon administration must thoroughly prepare for all possibilities.