Commentary / Japan

Japan’s way forward in a rudderless world

by Jonathan Berkshire Miller and Takashi Yokota

Contributing Writers

After U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “historic” summit last week, it is tempting to heap praise on the meeting as a starting point for defusing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, which some claim was dangerously close to all-out nuclear war last year.

Or so the small, but vociferous, chorus of defenders of the summit might argue.

For sure, the Trump-Kim summit did have its merits. It dialed back tensions that were escalating quickly over the past year, as highlighted by Trump’s threats to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury” in order to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

We are back from the brink of a catastrophic conflict that would have no winners, and risk costing the lives of tens of thousands in the region, including American servicemen and their families in both South Korea and Japan. It goes without saying that high-level diplomacy is a clear preference to military brinkmanship.

But such an obvious admission should not lower the bar for diplomatic success, or to alleviate legitimate concerns about the North Korea problem.

Nor should it be an excuse to blindly accept the brave new world of rudderless and unprincipled diplomacy, which accepts a ruthless dictator as an “international statesman” and dither on serious national security issues.

Pre-summit, Japan’s primary concerns were essentially two-fold: The complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (including ballistic missiles of all ranges) and the politically charged issue of Japan’s abductees. Prior to the Trump-Kim summit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe telegraphed his apprehensions on the fast-changing dynamics on the Korean Peninsula to the Trump administration.

First, on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction — the Abe administration continues to insist on concrete steps toward denuclearization, along with unbridled verification mechanisms.

From Japan’s perspective, there is no reason to “trust and not verify,” but rather to “distrust and verify repeatedly.” Previous accords with North Korea — in 1994 and 2005 — collapsed after Pyongyang exploited loopholes and broke promises (to be fair, the United States also ran into problems in the implementation process due to domestic political opposition).

In this respect, the Singapore summit was a resounding nothing-burger with no mention of verification — in spite of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s subsequent insistence that verification was “mutually understood” by both sides.

Related to this are acute concerns in Japan on North Korea’s ballistic missiles. Tokyo’s has insisted to Washington that any deal should include mention of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, in addition to chemical and biological weapons. Yet, the Trump-Kim summit showed no real sign that North Korea would be taking serious steps — if any — to address such concerns.

South Korea — which also is under the threat of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles — has been muted on this issue. Astonishingly, Seoul downplayed the importance of those capabilities during the Shangri-la Dialogue meeting by key defense officials earlier this month in Singapore.

This has further led to Japan’s sense of isolation of being the “odd man out,” and heightened concerns of the “decoupling” of alliances and strategic interests among the trilateral grouping of Tokyo, Washington and Seoul.

Perhaps more worrying for Abe is whether he can continue to trust Trump’s improvisational diplomacy.

In this respect, perhaps the most vexing point for Tokyo came during Trump’s post-summit news conference, when he declared that the U.S. would indefinitely cease its bilateral military exercises with South Korea.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera responded to this news — which also appeared to surprise South Korea — that the exercises are a “vital” part of East Asian security and U.S. deterrence commitments. The exercises, which maintain and improve defensive readiness between the U.S. Forces in Korea and the South Korean military, have long been an irritant to Pyongyang, which views them as a dress rehearsal for an invasion of the North.

The concession is essentially an endorsement of what China and Russia proposed earlier — a “double freeze” of military exercises in exchange for the North Korean pause of long-range missile and nuclear testing.

For Japan, this signals that the U.S. is weakening its resolve and approach to “maximum pressure” well before any concrete signs from North Korea on denuclearization. Furthermore, there are concerns that the precedent may damage Japan’s security and alliance commitments with Washington.

This has left Abe and Japan in a difficult position. On one hand, Tokyo needs to keep a balanced and optimistic approach alongside its U.S. ally. On the other, however, there is growing doubt creeping in on the credibility of the Trump administration’s commitment to its alliances. The biggest winner here is China, which takes delight at both the reduced U.S. commitment to allies and also its weakening credibility.

Yet if there is to be a silver lining for Japan, it would be most political element of importance for Japan — the abductee issue.

Some in Tokyo see a glimmer of hope from Trump reportedly raising the issue with Kim — and that the North Korean leader indicated an interest in meeting Abe. This could open the door to a possible top-level summit between Japan and North Korea — something which has not happened since 2004.

A high-level summit with Japan would be a logical move for Pyongyang, which can complete its diplomatic coming-out party with the hopes of blunting one of its only remaining critics.

As Abe embarks on the effort to meet Kim, he is in a unique position, albeit still a challenging one.

Should a Japan-North Korea summit become reality, Abe has the opportunity to tie up the loose ends left behind by the Trump-Kim summit by pressing for a more thorough deal on nuclear and ballistic missiles — both of which were included in the Pyongyang Declaration of 2002 between Abe’s erstwhile political mentor Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il.

But if Abe focuses solely on abductees, all the tough talk about CVID and missiles will ring hollow, and he will become the last man to cave into Kim’s smile diplomacy.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a visiting senior fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs. Takashi Yokota is foreign editor at NewsPicks and former editor-in-chief at Newsweek Japan.