Will “America First” leave Japan in the lurch?
As a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looms, and as the American president grapples with an all-consuming Russia probe, fears are growing that Trump’s next move could put Tokyo in a bind.
“I think there’s a very a high chance — maybe more than 50 percent — that, if Trump meets Kim again, there will be a deal that sells out allies,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and North Korea expert who teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Trump has touted his dealings with Kim as his administration’s signature foreign policy achievement, frequently pointing to the lack of nuclear tests by the North and the absence of missiles being shot over Japan — part of an informal moratorium by Pyongyang on atomic or longer-range missile tests.
But the North has not taken any steps toward relinquishing its nuclear arsenal, insisting that this must be a step-by-step and reciprocal process. This has left the two sides at loggerheads, languishing in a sort of holding pattern as the White House continues to doggedly pursue its seemingly far-off goal of the North’s “final, fully verified denuclearization.”
Now, with the White House mired in what is expected to be a punishing year for the president as the probe into alleged Russia interference in the 2016 election gains steam, Trump could look to North Korea for a much-needed victory.
“Anything that can deflect attention from serious questions about Trump’s integrity and fitness for office will be seen by this White House as worth trying,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia. “Moreover, casting Trump as a visionary leader on the international stage who is willing to take risks will be seen as countering the growing domestic narrative that Trump may be a stooge of Moscow.”
For Trump, such a victory could involve the U.S. signing off on the easing of crippling sanctions on the North in exchange for Pyongyang capping or curbing intercontinental ballistic missiles believed capable of striking much of the United States, while permitting it to keep some level short- and midrange missiles that could hit Japan, including the estimated 200 to 300 medium-range Nodong missiles it possesses. Those missiles can fly about 1,300 km (800 miles).
“I absolutely think the Japanese and other U.S. allies are right to be concerned that the Trump administration will try and cut a deal with Pyongyang to cap ICBM-related activities but leave the nuclear and other missile programs untouched,” said O’Neil.
Such a move, while adhering to Trump’s “America First” mantra, would almost assuredly have devastating implications for the U.S. alliance with Japan.
Ahead of a meeting with Trump last April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe highlighted the concern in Tokyo that the mercurial U.S. president could accept a deal that removes the long-range missile threat but leaves Pyongyang with shorter-range missiles, noting that getting rid of only ICBMs “has no meaning for Japan.”
On the surface, the White House has repeatedly said it stands by Tokyo in pushing the need for Pyongyang to abandon all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs, though recent comments by top officials suggest a softening of this view.
These include remarks Friday by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on talks with North Korea that focused on Pyongyang’s threat to the United States.
“We’re moving forward in these conversations, lots of ideas about how we might continue to decrease the risk to the American people,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “Remember … at the end that’s the objective; it’s the security of American people. And so reducing the threat from North Korea, whether that’s by our success to date in stopping their missile testing, stopping their nuclear testing, those are the important elements.”
These signals have combined with Trump’s long-standing disdain for U.S. alliances across the globe, a stance that has consistently stoked worry in friendly capitals since his 2016 election, creating a toxic combination that regional security observers say could ultimately lead to allies “decoupling,” where a nuclear-armed adversary can separate a security guarantor from its ally.
“The comments will be of concern to Tokyo, and probably other countries that enshrine extended deterrence in their U.S. alliance relationship,” said O’Neil. “Among U.S. allies, Japanese fears of decoupling are the most acute, and long-standing. Anxiety that Washington will privilege the security of the continental United States is based on the view that this will weaken the credibility of assurances that the U.S. is willing to put is own cities at risk to defend Japanese cities from nuclear threats or attack.”
According to Jackson, whose book “On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War” focuses on the nuclear crisis of 2017, Trump’s apparent willingness to renege on alliance commitments likely makes sense in the president’s own mind.
“A normal president would find a way to negotiate down North Korea’s nukes to continue protecting Japan,” he said. “But if you’re not invested in alliances, then it makes sense — protecting the U.S. homeland is the priority. Of course, the best way to protect the homeland is to maintain regional security through forward presence and alliance commitments. Trump doesn’t understand that though. His cognitive limitations risk making Japan more vulnerable.”
Ultimately, a missile cap, if at all even verifiable considering the North’s clandestine sites and long history of doubling back on its commitments, might buy Washington some time and temporarily slow down the Kim regime’s pursuit of weapons aimed at the U.S., but it could also invite even bigger, global problems. These could include diminished U.S. credibility and the possibility of Seoul and Tokyo seeking their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves — a move that would assuredly rattle China and set the stage for a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia.
Alternatively, a Trump cornered by the Russia probe and a recalcitrant North Korea could return to his “fire and fury” position that brought the U.S. to the brink of war in 2017.
“Pressures from the Russia probe could lead him to renew a hard line on North Korea, or to show a diplomatic victory and statesmanship,” said Jackson. “I think Trump doesn’t personally care about the North Korea situation at all. He simply wants to distract from domestic political problems.
“For now,” he added, “diplomacy is the better distraction, but crisis could become the better distraction at some point.”