The Inter-Korean Summit on April 27 has set the stage for the planned Trump-Kim tete-a-tete scheduled for early June. The summit’s optics conveyed Kim Jon Un as a modern North Korean leader able to hold his own vis-a-vis seasoned South Korean President Moon Jae-in, cultural pageantry steeped in shared Korean traditions and a degree of inter-Korean cordiality not seen in years. Noteworthily, rhetoric in speeches and declarations was ambiguous enough to suggest that the North is open to denuclearization.
The immediate result of the summit was the Panmunjom Declaration. Signed by both leaders, the declaration charts out a future of mutual cooperation, an intensification of exchanges to consolidate trust and mutual understanding, and a convergence in socio-economic development. They also pledged to work toward a peace agreement between the North and the South by the end of the year, to work toward denuclearization of the peninsula, and to have a reciprocal visit by Moon to Pyongyang in the autumn. They have even planned successive groups of meetings in which military leaders from both sides will meet beginning in June.
While these pledges are important in the peace building process, forging a sustainable peace on the peninsula will require both denuclearization and demilitarization. Here is where the complexities of the denuclearization process begin to cast a shadow of doubt on the positive atmosphere derived from the Inter-Korean Summit.
Kim’s statement at the North Korea-China summit on March 26 provides insight into the North’s long-term vision of the peninsula. At the meeting, Kim said “It is our consistent stance to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of the late President Kim Il Sung and the late General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”
This phrasing is salient to understanding the North’s position. Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il understood denuclearization as denuclearization of the entire peninsula and the removal of the nuclear umbrella that surrounds the Korean Peninsula. This includes the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the region, including Japan.
This vision is in stark contrast to the vision of the United States and its allies in the region — that denuclearization of North Korean means the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of existing weapons and the capability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons in the North.
Denuclearization is the core demand of the U.S., but by necessity short, intermediate and long-range missile systems, biological and chemical weapons as well as submarine launch platforms will also be on the table. The U.S. and allies will expect no less as U.S. bases and cities in Japan and South Korea are in the range of these systems.
The inter-Korean summit was wearily watched in Tokyo as it is a prelude to the much more crucial meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in early June. Japan fears that Trump will make a deal with the North that will only focus on denuclearization and ICBMs, and not reflect Japan’s broader interests. From Tokyo’s perspective, this does not go far enough in allaying concerns related to weapons of mass destruction and conventional weapons. The lingering issue of kidnaped Japanese nationals also remains an outstanding issue for Tokyo that may be politically popular, but is possibly unresolvable.
Another concern for Tokyo is if the U.S. makes concessions on ICBMs only. This kind of bargain could effectively eliminate the North as a threat to the continental U.S. and it would allow for a gradual de-escalation of tensions on the peninsula. It is a tempting “deal” for a president facing a domestic political insurgency at home and a mid-term election in which the House of Representatives may flip Democratic without a big political win at the Trump-Kim summit.
If this kind of deal is made by the “America First” president, the question for Tokyo would be what would be the consequences for Japan? Most worrying is whether the South and North Korea could resist gravitating into China’s political orbit as tensions on the peninsula dissipate.
Currently, South Korea’s largest trading partner in 2017 was China at 23.7 percent. With security concerns decreased, China and South Korea would likely invest heavily into the North and the trilateral economic relations would deepen. The signature policy of China’s President Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative, would likely be extended into the Korean Peninsula, expanding China’s influence there.
This possible evolution of the peninsula would be even more problematic if that political constellation was anti-Japanese, a likely outcome considering the continued aggrieved relations deeply rooted in Japan’s 20th century imperialism, but also post-World War II domestic politics and national building in each respective country.
Worryingly, this kind of outcome would no doubt revive old nationalist themes of Korea as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan,” likely prompting Japan to adopt a more nationalistic security posture independent of the U.S.
National security advisers in the Trump administration fully understand that this kind of outcome would not be in the U.S.’ long-term interests. They also are fully cognizant that the deepening Sino-U.S. rivalry requires stalwart allies and there is no other country in the region better situated than Japan. Its technical capacities, size of economy, shared norms and geographic position make it an ally like no other for the U.S.
As a result, the Trump-Kim summit’s negotiations over denuclearization will also reflect Japanese security interests as they overlap significantly with U.S. security interests. If the North is indeed sincere about the denuclearization and demilitarization process, the U.S. will require reliable partners in the verification process of the irreversible dismantling of all threatening systems, but also in the gradual relaxing of sanctions that would go hand-in-hand with a compliant Pyongyang.
Finally, securing Japan’s interests vis-a-vis the conventional and non-conventional military threat that emanates from North Korea strengthens the U.S. and Japan’s other security initiatives in the Indo-Pacific such as the quadrilateral arrangement and joint coordination and cooperation in the South China Sea and Indo-Pacific to balance an expanding China. The U.S. will not be able to achieve its long-term national interests by neglecting its closest partners such as Japan. As such, it must inculcate Japan’s interests in any negotiations with the North.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor of international relations and politics at the International Christian University, Tokyo.