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Japan Worries It’ll Be Forgotten as Its Allies Talk to North Korea

Last week, he traveled to President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., to secure Mr. Trump’s agreement to seek the total abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in his talks with Mr. Kim, and to press for the return of Japanese citizens abducted by the North decades ago.

On Tuesday, in a phone call, Mr. Abe asked President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who will meet with the North Korean leader on Friday, for a similar commitment.

In principle, both Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon have agreed to Mr. Abe’s requests. But given how unpredictable at least two of the players are, Japan is by no means assured that it will be happy with the outcome.

In general, the Japanese are very skeptical that North Korea would stick to any deal, given its history of going back on commitments to stop its nuclear program.

“We never trust the words of North Korea,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “What we can trust is the actions of North Korea. That is probably a sentiment shared among all Japanese, including ordinary citizens.”

And while Japan is accustomed to dealing with mercurial North Korean leaders, Mr. Trump represents a new volatility from the American side.


The mango mousse that prompted a complaint from Japan: It is decorated with a map of the Korean Peninsula that includes islands over which Tokyo claims sovereignty. Credit South Korean Presidential Office

“With this President Trump, there is a sense in Japan that he has a little bit different sense of the alliance,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor of political science at the University of Tokyo.

Under Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, said Mr. Kubo, the sense was that “if your ally is in trouble, you feel that you must help your ally. But in this president, if your ally is in trouble, it might suggest that this is a good time for him to exploit this ally.”

Analysts said that Japan’s biggest worry might be an impulsive desire on Mr. Trump’s part to declare a quick victory, even at the cost of Japan’s or the region’s security. Though Mr. Trump has said that he is committed to North Korea’s complete denuclearization, Japan is concerned he might accept something short of that.

“I think it may be that the Abe cabinet is still a little nervous that Trump is still going to say, ‘See, I did it,’ claim a win and walk away,” said Sheila A. Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Mr. Kim’s recent announcement that North Korea no longer needs to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles has left Japan acutely concerned that the North intends to keep what nuclear weapons it already has, and to maintain its arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles that can reach Japan.

An editorial in the right-leaning newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun called Mr. Kim’s announcement “a tactic to weaken the pressure of the international community’s sanctions,” adding that “there was no mention of any intention to abandon nuclear and ballistic missiles” in the statement.

Japanese officials “are trying to keep the conversation very focused on what ‘denuclearization’ means,” Ms. Smith said. “The experts that have been here before have had these conversations multiple times. They understand that when Kim Jong-un is talking about denuclearization he doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing that we mean, so there’s a lot of pressure to just put the brakes on, be cautious, make sure you know what you’re doing.”

Commentators in Japan speculated that Mr. Trump might also see some value in keeping Japan nervous.

“For President Trump, it may be favorable to keep Japan feeling left behind and facing a threat,” Park Il, an economics professor and expert on the Korean Peninsula at Osaka City University, said on a Tokyo Broadcasting System news program. “Japan will possibly have to buy more weapons for whatever price the United States sets.”

Besides the security concerns, the return of the Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and ’80s is a top priority of Japan and Mr. Abe in particular.

Mr. Abe scored what appeared to be a diplomatic victory in Mar-a-Lago when Mr. Trump promised he would raise the issue directly with Mr. Kim.

“We’re going to do everything possible to have them brought back, and bring them back to Japan,” Mr. Trump said in a joint news conference with Mr. Abe. “I gave you that promise.”

Analysts said that the most Mr. Trump could do is mention the abductees, and that it was extremely unlikely he would insist on any specific action. “You had Trump voicing and saying the words that Abe wanted him to say,” said Jeffrey W. Hornung, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.


A North Korean photo of one of its missile launches last year. A Japanese newspaper noted that “there was no mention of any intention to abandon nuclear and ballistic missiles” in a recent statement from Mr. Kim. Credit Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But if Mr. Kim offered, for example, to extend a testing freeze for a year but insisted the United States set aside any demands about the abductees, “would Trump say, ‘Nope, sorry, you’ve got to do the abduction issue too?’” Mr. Hornung said.

“I can’t imagine Trump, who wants a success here and who really wants the big win, throwing away any big deal on denuclearization or missiles for the sake of a Japanese priority,” he said.

Mr. Moon has also said he would raise the issue of the Japanese abductees in his meeting with Mr. Kim on Friday.

But with South Korea talking about negotiating a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, analysts said Japan would be watching closely for signs of concessions on a bigger issue: the United States military presence on the Korean Peninsula.

Although Mr. Kim has said he would not demand the withdrawal of American troops as a prerequisite for discussing the North’s nuclear program, some supporters of Mr. Moon’s liberal administration have long wanted the United States to reduce or withdraw its presence in the South, where about 28,500 American troops are stationed. Such a move would alarm Japan, which benefits from United States military protection in the region.

Analysts in Japan also worry that South Korea, in an effort to unify the peninsula, could start to pull away from the United States and be drawn further toward China, a North Korean ally.

“If South Korea becomes a Chinese ally in the most extreme scenario, how can we defend ourselves?” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

“We would be put in a very, very difficult position,” Mr. Michishita said. “If the Korean Peninsula gets inside the Chinese sphere of influence and there are no U.S. forces on the peninsula, life for the U.S. and Japan would be very difficult, but especially for Japan.”

Hoping to have some say in the course of events, Japan has been seeking to set up its own summit meeting between Mr. Abe and Mr. Kim. So far, the North has not responded.

Analysts said that Japan may get its moment if the North indeed comes out of isolation, and starts looking for financial support to fulfill Mr. Kim’s promise of building the country’s economy.

“If North Korea is serious about having a totally different life from now on, they need some financial help from someone and it must be, in the end, Japan,” said Mr. Kubo, the University of Tokyo professor.

Japan, which until its defeat in World War II ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony, paid reparations to South Korea in 1965 but has yet to pay any to the North, Mr. Kubo noted. “So then, logically, they should be interested in talking with Japan in the end.”

Source: NYT > World

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