Comments by the top U.S. diplomat Sunday that the main objective of talks with North Korea next month is to eliminate the isolated country’s long-range nuclear missile capabilities are likely to raise eyebrows in Tokyo as Japan hustles to avoid being shut out of the diplomatic process.
Asked on “Fox News Sunday” about the possibility of the U.S. offering a security guarantee to the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as part of any possible deal to rid it of its nuclear weapons program, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will “have to see how the negotiations proceed” but appeared to focus solely on the threat to the United States.
“Make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning,” Pompeo said from Washington.
His comments, just a month ahead of the hotly anticipated July 12 summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim, are likely to exacerbate lingering concerns that the mercurial American leader may cut a deal that leaves Japan in the lurch.
“U.S. allies will be extremely concerned about statements that seem to suggest the United States cares more about threats to the homeland than to allies,” Adam Mount, a senior defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington said, adding that such statements would encourage them “to chart their own course.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged Trump to push the North to give up not only its intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit the U.S., but also its short- and midrange weapons capable of striking Japan. He has also secured a promise from Trump that he will speak to Kim about the Japanese who were abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s.
Abe said Monday that he will make sure Trump “directly” fills him in on the outcome of the summit with Kim, apparently underscoring Tokyo’s latest effort to avoid being alienated amid the recent flurry of diplomatic activity on the Korean Peninsula.
The prime minister’s remarks came a day after Japanese media reported the government has been requesting Trump stop over in Japan to brief Abe after the summit.
“After the U.S.-North Korea meeting is over, I would like to directly receive feedback from President Trump on how it went,” Abe told the Lower House Budget Committee without elaborating.
He also said he will speak with Trump before the Singapore talks, when the two meet on the sidelines of this year’s Group of Seven summit in Quebec, Canada, “so we can make thorough preparations together.”
But despite Abe’s wishes, a senior Japanese official said it would be “unthinkable” for a U.S. president to bother stopping in Japan on a return trip from Singapore.
“If they want to refuel in Japan, it does make sense” that Trump would meet Abe, the official said. “But wouldn’t it be easier for them to refuel somewhere else?” the official added, declining to clarify whether Abe is instead planning to travel to Singapore himself and have post-summit talks with Trump there.
Still, despite fears of a possible drift in the alliance, Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said that Pompeo and others administration officials’ comments “reflect the core mission related to denuclearization of the North, not broader geopolitical strategic objectives that when taken into consideration necessarily include Japan’s interests.”
Talks at the G-7 and after the summit, Nagy said, will be opportunities for Abe “to press Japan’s concerns and get clarity on the Trump administration’s long-term plan for denuclearization and what that entails.”
Ahead of the summit — the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader — Pompeo praised Trump and also continued to soften the administration’s stance on the nuclear-armed country, saying Sunday that the two nations share common goals.
“No president has ever put America in a position where the North Korean leadership thought that this was truly possible, that the Americans would actually do this, would lead to the place where America was no longer held at risk by the North Korean regime,” Pompeo said. “That’s the objective. … I think chairman Kim shares the objectives with the American people. I am convinced of that.”
Trump’s stated goal is for North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons in a “complete, verifiable, irreversible” way. In return, the U.S. has said it is willing to help the impoverished nation bolster its economy.
The North has claimed that its nuclear arsenal is for defensive purposes and to counter any U.S. plans at regime change, but Kim said last month that his country was shifting to a “new strategic line” that focuses the nation’s resources on rebuilding its economy.
In a separate interview Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Pompeo said that private-sector American entrepreneurs could play a role in this shift, helping rebuild North Korea’s energy grid and develop the country’s agricultural sector.
“We can create conditions for real economic prosperity for the North Korean people that will rival that of the South,” he said.
But he said assurances of the regime’s security — in effect letting Kim stay in power if he met U.S. demands — would also need to be addressed by Washington.
“We will have to provide security assurances to be sure,” Pompeo said. “This has been a trade-off that has been pending for 25 years.”
He did not offer more details, but his remarks could refer to the type of assurances Pyongyang has sought — and received — in the past.
In the 1994 Agreed Framework with the North, the U.S. said it “would provide formal peace and national security assurances” to the country, while a 2005 statement issued during the now-defunct six-party talks with North Korea said the “United States affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade (North Korea) with nuclear or conventional weapons.”
Both agreements later collapsed.
North Korea said Saturday that all of the tunnels at the country’s northeastern nuclear test site will be destroyed by explosion in less than two weeks, while observation and research facilities and ground-based guard units will also be removed. Pompeo praised this as “one step along the way.”
John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, described the types of steps that North Korea would need to continue taking as part of a denuclearization process, including the potential involvement of a processing center in Tennessee.
“The implementation of the decision means getting rid of all the nuclear weapons, dismantling them, taking them to Oak Ridge, Tennessee,” Bolton said Sunday in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.” “It means getting rid of the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities,” adding the process would also need to address North Korea’s ballistic missiles.
“I don’t think anybody believes you’re going to sign the complete ending of the nuclear program in one day. But we are also very much interested in operationalizing the commitment as quickly as possible,” Bolton said.
The top Trump adviser also said that the North must also address its abysmal human rights record, including its abduction of Japanese nationals.
But he also struck a contradictory note with Pompeo on Sunday, saying in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” that the North should not “look for economic aid from us.”
“I think what the prospect for North Korea is to become a normal nation, to behave and interact with the rest of the world the way South Korea does,” he said.
Japan, meanwhile, has spent the past few months carefully weighing whether it should embark on its own meeting with Kim, a diplomatic gambit that could backfire to the severe detriment of Abe should he fail to win solid concessions from Kim on the long-standing abductee issue.
On Monday, Abe reiterated Tokyo’s willingness to hold face-to-face talks with Kim, following a Fuji TV report last week quoting a diplomatic source as saying that the North Korean leader was left wondering why Japan wouldn’t talk to him “directly about the abductions.”
“Japan can never resolve the abduction issue completely unless it discusses this with North Korea,” Abe said. “We have to make our own efforts to resolve it.”