National | ANALYSIS

North Korea’s surprise move unlikely to deepen U.S.-Japan rift ahead of Trump-Kim summit: experts

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sudden announcement Saturday that his country had suspended nuclear and longer-range missile tests and shut down its main atomic test site to focus on its sanctions-hit economy may have caught the U.S. and Japan off guard, but experts say it is unlikely to deepen any rifts between the allies ahead of a landmark summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As the White House gears up for the first-ever meeting between a sitting American president and a North Korean supreme leader, Tokyo had been pushing its top ally to recognize its concerns and present them at the summit, slated for late May or June, for talks on the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been especially worried that, despite his “bromance” with Trump, the mercurial U.S. leader might seal a deal that effectively leaves Japan in the lurch.

In recent weeks, Abe had been particularly focused on two key goals: Making sure Trump delivers a message to Kim that the issue of Japanese nationals abducted decades ago by the North be resolved immediately and urging Trump not to forget the North’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach most, if not all, of Japan.

But Abe appeared to get more out of Trump and the U.S. than he expected during their meeting last week at the U.S. leader’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, including a strong promise to bring up the abductions issue with Kim and also to press him on not only longer-range missiles that could hit the United States, but also on shorter-range weapons.

Perhaps even more surprising was the apparent willingness by the Trump administration to expand the scope of what issues it might push the Kim regime on, saying in a statement released after the conclusion of the summit Wednesday that “North Korea needs to abandon all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs”and deploying administration officials to note that this would include WMDs beyond its nuclear arsenal such as chemical and biological arms.

Ahead of his summit with Trump, Abe had expressed concern that the leader might strike a deal to eliminate long-range ballistic missiles but let the North keep its shorter-range arsenal that puts much of Japan in striking distance.

With these commitments, some experts said there is now almost no daylight between the two allies.

“I don’t think there is any gap between Tokyo and Washington on this, as Abe and Trump just agreed on CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization) and abolition of all missiles,” said Tetsuo Kotani, an associate professor at Meikai University in Chiba Prefecture.Still, much of the anxiety that has resonated in Tokyo has stemmed from the unpredictability of Trump, who has vowed to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and to “totally destroy” the country of 25 million people if it threatened the U.S. or its allies, but now speaks of “good will” between Washington and Pyongyang.

Kim, too, has proved to be more adroit at diplomatic maneuvering than expected.

On Saturday, the young leader announced that the North had suspended nuclear and longer-range missile tests and would mothball its Punggye-ri atomic test site, while also shifting its focus to build up its sanctions-hit economy.

The move was almost immediately lauded by Trump, who called it “very good news” and “big progress” toward the goal of denuclearizing the North.

But while Trump touted the news, some experts cast a skeptical eye on it.

“It’s a symbolic move in my view that can be easily reversed,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The North Koreans are clearly seeking to hold out inducements to both the South Koreans and the Americans in the upcoming summits, but what they have said they’ll do today does not necessarily lead to the North Koreans denuclearizing in the long term.”

North Korea also has a long history of working to drive wedges between the U.S. and its allies, often using moves like Saturday’s announcement to bait its rivals.

As recently as 2007, as part of the six-party talks, it agreed to disable all of its nuclear facilities by the end of that year, setting out the first specific timetable for it to disclose all its nuclear programs and disable all facilities in return for fuel oil or its equivalent in economic aid, but later prevaricated on agreeing to verification protocol.

Pyongyang ultimately walked out of six-party talks altogether, in April 2009, in protest of sanctions slapped on it after it test-fired a modified Taepodong-2 three-stage rocket, ostensibly as part of its civilian space program. A year later, it revealed a vast new uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. scientists.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said that Saturday’s announcement resembled past maneuvering by the regime.

“Reading the material … I was struck by how much things had not changed,” Nagy said. Kim “said nothing about giving up current capabilities, leaving Pyongyang with its long sought-after strategic nuclear deterrent, short- and midrange missiles and submarine systems.”

Abe, for his part, voiced a qualified approval of the Kim pledge.

“I welcome the announcement as a positive action,” he said, adding that he would “closely monitor the situation” but not halt the government’s pressure policy.

Other members of his Cabinet, however, expressed caution, with defense chief Itsunori Onodera calling the North’s decisions “insufficient because they do not mention scrapping of the country’s short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.”

Regardless, considering the U.S. commitments made to Abe, as well as the overall importance of Japan as an ally, it’s unlikely that Trump will forge a deal that would burn Tokyo by focusing solely on the longer-range missiles that pose a more immediate danger to the United States, said Nagy.

“The North Korea’s challenge goes beyond nuclear tipped ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles),” said Nagy. “Its short- and midrange missiles, which include chemical, biological and conventional systems in addition to its submarine launch platforms, will continue to threaten U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea. Without those systems included in any deal, it’s difficult to see the Trump administration move ahead in any deal.

“Fortunately,” he said, “these national interests overlap with Japan and as a result I don’t see Japan being isolated.”