Within moments of greeting President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in mid-April, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clinched a key strategic objective for their meeting: a photo op.
During the discussions, which were thorough albeit along familiar lines, Abe achieved another key goal for the meeting: the president promised to raise the question of Japanese abductees in his planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Otherwise, Abe didn’t walk away with much: Trump distanced himself once more from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); rebuffed Abe’s request to be let off the hook for steel and aluminum tariffs; and pushed to revivify U.S.-Japan bilateral trade talks that the Japanese fear would primarily benefit the United States. The two leaders conducted a robust discussion on trade competition.
Yet Abe seemed to go away satisfied, given the optics of meeting with Trump to discuss North Korea in the run-up to the president’s summit with Kim. The two allied leaders have of course exchanged views on North Korea through other means, including phone calls. But Japan has been cut out of the frenzy of recent high level meetings with North Korea’s heretofore elusive leader, including Kim Jong Un’s visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s visit with Kim, and the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the upcoming one between Kim and Trump. Abe seemed to be left out.
Abe reportedly asked for his own summit with Kim, only to be rebuffed once again. Meanwhile, Japan hasn’t even tried for North Korea-focused summits with frenemy South Korea, or with China. (Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono did make his first visit to Seoul a few weeks ago, and Abe plans to host Chinese Premier Li Keqian and South Korea’s Moon for a May Tokyo trilateral meeting, focusing on economic issues, which might allow for some side-bar conversations on North Korea.)
The U.S. and Japan generally attempt to make a strong show of unity on North Korea as a means of pressuring Pyongyang and influencing Beijing. That said, each country views North Korea through the prism of its own national interests and priorities, and there are nuanced policy differences between the U.S. and Japan. With a little finesse, the U.S. can satisfy Japanese concerns and keep Japan fully and enthusiastically engaged in supporting U.S. national strategy vis-à-vis North Korea:
The U.S. is responding urgently to the North Korean threat at this time because Pyongyang is now on the verge of deploying nuclear missiles capable of striking the continental United States. Yet even if this threat were neutralized, North Korea would still have intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) capable of striking Japan – for example, Hwasong-12 IRBMs of the type that North Korea provocatively shot over Hokkaido last August and September.
Should the U.S. cut a deal with North Korea omitting any reference to the North’s IRBMs, it could be viewed as indirectly legitimizing or codifying North Korea’s nuclear threat to Japan, raising major concerns in Tokyo. This would risk driving a wedge into the U.S.-Japan alliance, and could ignite a more intensive debate in Tokyo about Japan’s own nuclear deterrent options.
The U.S. should continue to call for a completely nuclear-free North Korea, and emphasize its concern that North Korean IRBMs can strike not only Japan, but also the over 50,000 U.S. military personnel stationed there, not to mention many more U.S. civilians.
The painful truth is that any Japanese the North Koreans abducted (mainly from 1977-83) and that the North hasn’t already produced either died naturally, or may have been murdered, tortured or otherwise treated horribly by the regime. We can reasonably assume Pyongyang doesn’t produce them, or present convincing evidence about their whereabouts, because the true story would be even worse than any supposition. In the past, U.S. negotiators have taken the position that the abductee issue is a sideshow that shouldn’t distract from the core issues being negotiated. The Trump Administration is showing greater concern, as demonstrated vividly by the President’s meeting with abductee families in Japan.
In order to demonstrate sympathy for a truly tragic situation, the U.S. should touch on the issue of the abductees during the U.S.-North Korea summit, as Trump has indicated he would.
While Kim will gain prestige just from meeting with Trump, the president will also get a boost from this historic meeting, even if it ends up just being ceremonial. In marked contrast, Japan will be outside the door, figuratively and perhaps literally, cooling its heels and waiting to be back-briefed about matters having a critical impact on its central national security interests.
The U.S. can help the Japanese save face through the simple expedient of promptly – and visibly – briefing them at a high level after the talks.
“Wild Card” Concessions
Japanese officials privately express concern that the U.S. will make “wild card” good-will concessions in return for ephemeral gestures on the part of the North Koreans.
Such fears have no doubt been exacerbated by South Korean President Moon’s “three no’s,” through which he apparently traded away to China elements of Japan’s (and America’s) security, mere days before Trump visited Seoul last November. In return for Beijing relinquishing economic pressure on the South, these concessions included no more THAAD deployment in South Korea; no trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan; and no regional missile defense.
Rather than being worried that the U.S. might make unilateral concessions, what the Japanese should really be concerned about is Moon pulling a repeat performance when he meets with Kim in Pyongyang for their follow-on summit this coming fall.
In this regard, the Panmunjom Declaration inked April 26 by North and South may seem innocuous on the surface, but the devil is in the details of implementing it:
- The agreement to “carry out disarmament in a phased manner, as military tension is alleviated, and substantial progress is made in military confidence-building” could lead down the path of incremental and easily-reversible “disarmament” measures by the North, as it has in the past;
- The agreement to “completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict” could diminish the South’s willingness to participate in regular training – such as its fighter jets joining U.S. B-1 bombers and Japanese fighter jets for flights near the Korean Peninsula – and could make the South skittish about enforcing sanctions against North Korea at sea, inter alia;
- The agreement to “actively implement” previously-agreed projects “in order to promote balanced economic growth and co-prosperity of the nation” could diminish the South’s resolve to tighten or even maintain sanctions on the North.
And, for Japan, perhaps the most pernicious clause calls for South and North Korea to meet with the U.S. and China on a peace treaty – and, presumably, other critical issues – thereby excluding Japan.
The U.S. should work closely with Japan in drawing red lines for Moon in anticipation of his follow-up meeting with Kim, and thereby also help reassure Tokyo that the U.S. and Japan are on the same page.
Bottom line: The U.S. should keep its eyes on the prize by focusing clearly on U.S. national security interests in the Trump-Kim summit. Those U.S. interests include maintaining our strong alliance with Japan. The U.S. can play the Japan card most effectively by keeping Tokyo fully and enthusiastically engaged in our strategy vis-à-vis North Korea. Nuances in Japanese objectives can be accommodated without deflecting or detracting from overall U.S. strategy. The U.S.-Japan alliance will be more unified, strengthening the hand of the President when he meets Kim Jong Un.