Commentary / Japan

Two contradictory proverbs

by Kuni Miyake

There are two popular Japanese proverbs that conflict with each other: “The third time is real (lucky)” and “What happens twice will happen three times (When it rains it pours).” The former represents optimistic idealists while the latter pessimistic realists. Which one will be the case for the Korean Peninsula?

The optimistic camp claims the following:

This time is real and North Korea has to make substantive concessions.

No recent dynasties last for more than three generations.

Economic sanctions are working and may soon be terminating the regime.

The United States is taking actions and ready to go to war, if necessary.

China is not anymore as patient with North Korea as before.

Therefore, the leaders of North Korea must make serious decisions to eventually give up their nuclear weapons development programs in exchange for their regime’s survival sometime by the end of a long series of negotiations.

The pessimists, on the contrary, rebut as follows:

We have been cheated twice already and this time it will be the same.

Dictatorships do not fall spontaneously.

Economic sanctions ultimately do not work.

The U.S. cannot afford another war in East Asia.

China is not prepared for the fall of North Korea.

Therefore, the leaders of North Korea are most likely to repeat their traditional “smiling for rewards but cheating on nukes” tactics, which have been very successful for the past few decades.

Whenever history is in motion, optimistic views prevail at first. Yes, they were right when the Berlin Wall fell in 2009, leading to the fall of the Soviet Union, and when the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Israel shook hands at a meeting in Camp David that led to a bilateral peace treaty and eventually to the Oslo Accord.

However, optimism likewise proved wrong when an expanded NATO and European Union membership resulted in the Russian annexation of Crimea, and when people openly praised the “2011 Arab spring” democratic movements, which were eventually replaced either by new military dictatorships or by a social chaos.

In Japan, unlike in South Korea, optimism doesn’t seem to prevail either. When North Korea this past weekend declared that it no longer needed to test long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, even liberal newspapers’ editorials in Tokyo were skeptical, calling the announcement “just the beginning of serious negotiations” or “insufficient for the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.”

Those who harbor doubts should consider the long-term strategy of each party concerned and ask the following: Will they allow the Kim dynasty to stay? Will they opt for Korean unification? Will they permit North Korea to retain nuclear weapons? Or, will they accept a U.S. military presence on the peninsula?

Although it is still premature to predict the outcomes of the upcoming series of summits, it is worthwhile to do so from realistic and no-nonsense perspectives. The following are the issues that I personally expect North Korea to propose and the way for the parties involved to deal with them in the upcoming talks:

1. Terminating hostilities and formally ending the Korean War: Although North Korea has continued its provocations, there has been no war situation for decades in the peninsula. Thus, it is not too difficult for the parties concerned to declare a termination of hostilities. It may be, however, more difficult to formally end the Korean War, which might require North Korea’s concessions on nuclear weapons.

2. Humanitarian aid to North Korea and lifting economic sanctions: While the former can be relatively easy, the latter would require very substantive, if not full, North Korean commitments on denuclearization and its implementation.

3. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but not North Korea: The key issue is the definition and actual process of “denuclearization.” This must be clarified as well as implemented in concrete terms during the negotiations, most likely, before signing a peace treaty or any accord of similar significance.

4. Concluding a peace treaty among the parties concerned: A peace treaty must come at the end of the long negotiations after North Korea’s commitment and substantial implementation of dismantling all its weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, including short- and medium-range missiles.

5. An eventual U.S. forces reduction or withdrawal from South Korea: North Korea may not request this at the beginning but it may at a later stage. The U.S. president might initiate such a move in return for North Korea’s denuclearization. The U.S. president may even be tempted to tweet: The U.S. now can withdraw, for the sake of peace, significant number of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. Sad.

6. Promoting an open-door policy and economic investment in North Korea: Even before the final implementation of North Korea’s denuclearization, Pyongyang might start welcoming foreign direct investment, the great majority of which would come from China. In that case, they would most likely put North Korea and eventually South Korea within China’s sphere of economic influence.

7. Japan-North Korea normalization: Since Japan is not a major player in this round of talks, its normalization with North Korea may not come before the U.S.-North Korea negotiations. Whether they go smoothly or completely fail, North Korea may turn to Japan for concessions. That’s probably when Japan can make a deal with Pyongyang. Tokyo must be ready for such bilateral talks.

All in all, as of now few people in Japan are optimistic about the outcome of the talks and there is no guarantee that the U.S.-North Korea summit will bear any fruit in the first round. Such negotiations always look successful until they fail. What shouldn’t be overlooked is the possibility of a diplomatic failure.

If the moment of truth comes when all diplomatic efforts are considered exhausted, not many options are left. They include going to war or acquiescing to North Korean nuclear weapons, neither of which is in the long-term interest of Japan. Tokyo may, however, have to accept one of the two, if what has happened twice now happens for a third time.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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