Commentary / Japan

Impressions on the Trump-Kim summit

by Masamichi Hanabusa

It was surprising that the U.S.-North Korea summit made a quantum jump to writing a blueprint for the construction of a new regime in the Korean Peninsula based on the improvement of their relations, going far beyond the beginning of the dialogue between the United States and North Korea. The leadership of U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is commendable.

I was personally impressed by America’s paternalistic stance shown in its diplomatic exchanges with North Korea preceding the summit and Trump’s apparent exhilaration at his press conference. It is inconceivable that North Korea, militarily dependent mainly on nuclear weapons and missiles, and lagging desperately behind in economic development, could dare to renege on the agreement without gravely jeopardizing its own interests. After all the North Korean economy is as small in scale as a municipalities in either America or Japan.

The task to denuclearize North Korea with its considerable nuclear arsenal is far more difficult and complicated than tackling the Libyan or the Iranian cases. It is unclear whether future negotiations between Trump and Kim will bring about a non-porous agreement on the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CIVD) of North Korea, However, it is important that this summit has disclosed that North Korea attaches the highest priority to its relations with the U.S. There seems to be little ground to believe that North Korea, cherishing its “juche” (self-reliance) policy, would forfeit the emerging establishment of good relations with America in favor of dubious partnerships with China, with whom the relationship has been historically delicate, or with far more opportunistic Russia.

However formidable a leader Kim may be, it is clear that he cannot stay in power forever with his awesome boldness and cruelty alone. He needs a genuine relationship of trust with Trump if he is to control the domestic military establishment that is naturally very concerned about the future and to maintain accommodating relations with the U.S. in the most critical initial period of the coming two years. In this sense, it is rational for Trump to concede more to Kim in the initial period so North Korea engenders trust in the U.S. It is also wise for Trump to expand his perspective beyond North Korea’s security to its prosperity.

In parallel with the agreement on the denuclearizing process between the U.S. and North Korea, it is at present most important for both North and South Korea to act with swiftness and a spirit of mutual compromise in order to make the most of the heaven-sent opportunity that has arisen from the sudden American change of heart. They had better transcend petty calculations in the spirit of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord, as enunciated in the Panmunjom Declaration, to overcome their decades-long confrontation.

China and Russia, out of their concern over the fast-moving rapprochement between America and North Korea, could be tempted to curry favor with Pyongyang by loosening economic sanctions on North Korea. To prevent this, it is desirable to reconstruct a six-nation framework anew, so that they share a common understanding of what is going on in the peninsula. It is highly important that the U.S. control the pace of loosening sanctions. For that the U.S. needs to maintain its control over the loosening pace within the framework of broader U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations.

Lastly, Japan must cooperate as much as it can toward the success of the denuclearization of North Korea, fully mindful of the gigantic positive impact the denuclearization will bring on its own security. The room for Japan’s contribution may be small in the initial period of confidence-building. It is imperative for Japan to try to build good relations with North Korea without losing a long-term perspective.

With regard to the so-called abduction issue, at the time of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang in September 2002, North Korea acknowledged the issue and apologized for it at the government level. Bearing this in mind, it is important for Japan to solve this issue in as quiet and moderate a fashion as possible in the direction of satisfying the expectations of the related families. The Japanese people need to restrain their emotional reactions, so that they will not end up reducing the totality of the Japan-North Korea relationship to the single issue of abduction.

Masamichi Hanabusa, a former ambassador to Italy, is emeritus chairman of the English-Speaking Union of Japan. This article first appeared on the ESUJ’s website.