With a U.S. president facing the prospect of his party being trounced in midterm elections and a North Korean leader eager for a coming out party on the global stage, what can Japan expect from Tuesday’s historic summit? The nightmare scenario: a compromise just good enough for both sides but glaringly lacking for Japan.
Just days ahead of the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the upbeat atmosphere surrounding the meeting stands in stark contrast to the nervousness in Tokyo.
“The biggest nightmare for Japan is that Kim declares his intention to relinquish the intercontinental ballistic missiles that he quickly developed last year and Trump simply hails the offer as ‘great,’ making no further demands,” said Matake Kamiya, a professor of international politics at the National Defense Academy.
“If that’s Kim’s proposition, it means Pyongyang’s arsenal of missiles and nuclear weapons developed before that will still exist,” he said. “I don’t think that would be enough of an achievement to convince (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe to have his own meeting with Kim — even if Trump labels it ‘great.'”
Tokyo’s long-standing position — which it has repeatedly conveyed to Trump — is that the North should get rid of not only its ICBMs, but also its shorter-range missiles, which include hundreds of Rodongs, that can strike Japan.
Experts, and even Trump himself, have admitted that the summit will probably just be the start of a yearslong denuclearization process. Whatever deal is hammered out by the two leaders, it is likely to be more symbolic than substantial, with just enough meat to justify further talks.
“The most likely scenario is that they will squeeze out a semblance of an agreement that maps out no specific road map to denuclearization but serves as some sort of starting point that would allow them to talk about the details going forward,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
“Both leaders want to score some diplomatic points,” he added.
In an apparent bid to lower soaring expectations fueled partly by himself, Trump has already signaled the possibility that it may take more than one meeting with Kim to seal an ultimate agreement.
Taking this time frame into account, Japan will likely be tapped to play the “bad cop” until the “good cops” can complete the denuclearization process, said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
If the summit is considered a success, nations that sympathize with the North, such as China, Pyongyang’s main trading partner and protector, could decide to lift their own sanctions.
But Kotani said Japan should work with the international community to make sure that stringent economic sanctions are maintained as much as possible.
“South Korea, China and Russia may decide to lift their own sanctions but the regime would still be left in a tough situation, thanks to United Nations sanctions and independent sanctions by the U.S. and Japan,” Kotani said.
Kotani pointed to countries such as France and the U.K., which say they have no plans to lift sanctions at this point, as the key to keeping pressure on the North.
“Countries who share the same views (on denuclearization) should unite and maintain that U.N. sanctions and their own measures must not be lifted,” he said.
“If it’s difficult for the U.S. … to continue pushing ‘maximum pressure,’ ” Kotani said of Trump’s campaign of sanctions and diplomacy meant to bring the North to the negotiating table, “then Japan should continue to verify the commitment of the international community on behalf of Washington. That’s the best way to divide roles.”
In recent weeks, Trump has courted Kim, saying he does not want to use the phrase “maximum pressure” during the prelude to the summit and that he could even invite the reclusive leader to the White House if things go well.
After meeting with Trump on Thursday in Washington, Abe said that he wanted to talk directly with Pyongyang.
But a senior Foreign Ministry official later said that no talks had been held with North Korea so far and that for a bilateral summit to take place, there must be a guarantee that it would bear fruit.
Tokyo’s approach so far has been to talk to Pyongyang through Washington, which already has Kim’s ear.
However, Watanabe of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation said it’s time for Japan to reach out to North Korea on its own instead of counting on the mercurial Trump to mediate an Abe-Kim summit.
“On the off chance the upcoming talks go really smoothly and produce a concrete denuclearization deal that, for example, paves the way for a cooperative framework among related countries, then there is perhaps room for Japan to get involved in the process and ultimately have talks with Pyongyang. But the hurdle is just too high,” Watanabe said.
“It’s not like the Trump-Kim summit will solve everything,” he added.