National / Politics | ANALYSIS

For Japan, 'no deal' at Kim-Trump summit beats a bad deal with concessions to nuclear North Korea

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

At a glance, this week’s Kim-Trump summit meeting in Hanoi, held to foster progress toward the denuclearization of North Korea, generated few tangible victories — despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s boasts of the “tremendous” achievements he had expected.

The two leaders didn’t sign any joint statement despite earlier media buzz suggesting they would. No agreement was reached on dismantling any nuclear facilities, a road map for how to move forward or Washington’s demand for the full declaration of dozens of secret nuclear and ballistic missile facilities in North Korea.

But top officials in Japan immediately welcomed Trump’s decision not to seal any deal with North Korea this time.

In Tokyo, “no deal” was said to be a much better outcome than conceding ground to the nuclear-armed hermit state, which has yet to commit itself to any verifiable plans to dismantle all of its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

“(Trump) didn’t make any easy concessions, and at the same time decided to promote constructive talks and thereby urge North Korea to take concrete actions. I fully support this decision by President Trump,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Thursday evening.

Many observers were deeply concerned the unpredictable American leader could have struck critical compromises with Kim to claim progress had been made at the Hanoi summit.

Such concern was exacerbated by political scandals back in Washington that cast a shadow over the U.S. leader, who had appeared anxious to show off diplomatic achievements from his meeting with Kim.

But in the end no agreements were inked, and both sides indicated their willingness to continue talks.

This outcome has apparently relieved officials in Tokyo for now.

“I think not only Japan but also all the observers who are seriously concerned over the nuclear and missile development programs of North Korea would agree with Prime Minister Abe’s remark” welcoming Trump’s decision not to make critical concessions for now, said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo who is well acquainted with the history of U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks.

Pyongyang had reportedly offered to dismantle some of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon if the U.S. agreed to ease all of its economic sanctions in exchange.

But last month, speaking unofficially to reporters, some senior officials at Japan’s Foreign Ministry pointed out that there are many other nuclear and missile facilities in North Korea, and that dismantling only some of the plants in Yongbyon would be far from sufficient to show North Korea was abandoning its capability to produce weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

“There are many structures in Yongbyong. You can’t say it’s very significant if (just) one of them is dismantled,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

North Korea’s “declaration of all (nuclear) facilities is needed. This stance of ours hasn’t changed at all,” the official said.

Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, pointed out that Japan is also seeking the abolition of all ballistic missiles capable of hitting the country, including the Nodong, which can be deployed on mobile launchers.

“So just destroying the (missile) bases wouldn’t work” to make Japan safe, Takesada said.

“It’s good he didn’t sign an agreement to lift all the sanctions just in exchange for dismantling facilities in Yongbyon,” he said.

The U.S. had shown signs of softening its position in the denuclearization talks.

On Jan. 31, Stephen Biegun, U.S. special representative for North Korea, said in a speech at Stanford University that the U.S. must have a comprehensive declaration of facilities in the North related to weapons of mass destruction and missile programs “at some point” in the talks.

Diplomats in Tokyo have meanwhile emphasized that a full declaration must be a “very first” key step in the denuclearization process.

“Some countries need to stick to important principles” during the talks, such as calling for the full declaration of all nuclear and missile facilities in North Korea, another senior Japanese official said.

Japan will keep emphasizing the importance of obtaining a full declaration from the North while the U.S. may engage in more pragmatic diplomatic talks, the official added.

Watanabe of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation pointed out that before the summit discussions in Hanoi, Trump repeatedly raised public expectations with comments saying he would clinch a great deal in his second meeting with the North Korean leader.

That attitude may have led Kim to believe that Trump would be willing to make considerable concessions, may have caused mutual misunderstanding of what each side wanted from the summit, and could eventually have led to the failure to secure a deal on Thursday, Watanabe explained.

Summits between top leaders are usually arranged only after such fundamental miscommunications have been eliminated through pre-negotiations by working-level officials.

Trump and Kim decided to meet using their top-down decision-making authority, which could have prevented adequate communication in advance of the talks, Watanabe said.

But the failure to reach an agreement Thursday does not mean the end of discussions on the nuclear issue between Washington and Pyongyang. Both sides still appear willing to continue denuclearization talks, something Japanese officials welcome.

On Friday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency indicated Kim Jong Un is willing to hold a third summit with Trump.

“Kim Jong Un expressed his thanks to Trump for making positive efforts for the successful meeting and talks while making a long journey and said goodbye, promising the next meeting,” KCNA reported.

Many experts and intelligence officers say Pyongyang won’t renounce its nuclear weapons program because it believes it is an essential tool to guarantee the survival of the current regime, which is centered on Kim’s dictatorship.

But Shunji Hiraiwa, a noted Korean affairs expert at Nanzan University, said he believes Pyongyang would seriously consider promoting “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” if the U.S. guarantees the safety of Kim’s regime and economic assistance for Pyongyang to achieve prosperity.

In June, Kim and Trump agreed in Singapore to aim for “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

According to Hiraiwa, in Pyongyang’s terminology, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” does not mean one-sided disarmament of North Korea.

North Korea believes that if it is to renounce all the nuclear weapons it has already developed, then the weapon systems maintained there now by the U.S. should likewise be removed, Hiraiwa said.

Staff writers Sakura Murakami and Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this article.