WASHINGTON – On June 26, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States will not place a deadline on North Korea’s denuclearization. Even though he insisted that the U.S. will regularly assess the seriousness of North Korea’s commitment to giving up its nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration’s apparent reluctance to hold Pyongyang accountable by setting a concrete time line is a source of worry for Tokyo. Japan was already growing increasingly anxious about the U.S. commitment to addressing its concerns during the negotiations with North Korea.
The question of how close Prime Minister Shinzo Abe really is to President Donald Trump began to emerge after his visit to the U.S. to meet him in mid-April. Despite their talks over two days — both on and off the golf course — Abe failed to convince Trump to reverse his decision to impose a hefty tariff on Japan’s steel and aluminum exports to America.
Furthermore, since the announcement of the summit meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on March 8, concerns have risen in Japan that, despite Abe’s best efforts to keep the nation engaged in regional diplomacy by remaining in close consultation with Washington, Tokyo has been largely sidelined by the fast-moving developments on the Korean Peninsula.
It is even questionable whether Abe’s last-minute effort to meet Trump less than a week before the Singapore summit to ensure that he would raise Tokyo’s concerns regarding North Korea’s missiles and its abductions of Japanese citizens with Kim helped Japan at all. The joint statement that emerged after the summit did not seem to address Japan’s concerns. Furthermore, Trump’s announcement on “stopping the war games” between the U.S. and South Korea took Japan by surprise.
So far, Japan’s attempt to jump into the web of regional diplomacy and engage in the consultations on North Korea with other stakeholders in the region — China, South Korea, Russia and above all, North Korea — has largely been unsuccessful. Although China recently offered to host another Japan-China-South Korea summit in December to facilitate consultation among the three countries on North Korea’s denuclearization, Japan has largely been the odd man out in regional diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. Although it has been reported that Abe now may want to meet with Kim, North Korea has made clear that it does not want Japan to play any role in its denuclearization.
Of course, the idea that North Korea’s denuclearization can be implemented without Japan’s involvement is completely misguided. In the 1990s, as the 1994 Agreed Framework (the last U.S.-North Korea bilateral agreement to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capability) was being implemented, Japan played a critical role in funding the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) along with South Korea to facilitate the solid implementation of the agreement.
Japan will certainly have an important role to play this time around too, either through financial assistance or technical assistance in decommissioning North Korea’s nuclear facilities, once the U.S. and North Korea come up with a concrete road map.
However, the implementation of the agreed framework, including the establishment of KEDO, was based on extremely close consultations among the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
In contrast, today’s trilateral coordination among the three countries have been just OK at best, and has been constantly overshadowed by several factors, including diplomatic tension between Japan and South Korea over the “comfort women” issue, U.S.-Japan tension over trade, U.S.-South Korea tension over the renegotiation of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and concerns in Tokyo and Seoul over the Trump administration’s commitment to their respective bilateral alliances.
In such circumstances, it is extremely difficult for Japan to try to play a role in shaping the specific steps toward Pyongyang’s denuclearization. While Japan may take comfort in U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ strong commitment to maintaining an effective deterrence through close U.S.-Japan alliance coordination to sustain pressure on North Korea while its denuclearization moves forward, whether and how much Japan can engage in the denuclearization negotiations either through the U.S. or through the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral consultation is highly unclear. A worst-case scenario would be that Japan would be simply informed of the result of the negotiations and the role it is expected to play in its implementation.
At the beginning of the Trump presidency, Abe took pride in establishing a close personal connection. However, the developments on the North Korea nuclear issue in the last several months were a rude awakening for Abe and Japan writ large: that for Trump, a cordial personal relationship is one thing, while his decisions on foreign policy can be quite another. And for a U.S. president who is so focused on reducing the “cost” that the U.S. bears in conducting its foreign policy, it is quite possible for Trump to back his own words with a transactional policy decision on North Korea’s denuclearization: Have Japan, South Korea and China pay for its cost.
To avoid such a fate, the Abe government needs to be proactive in engaging China and South Korea. Leveraging Beijing’s demonstrated willingness to stay engaged in the trilateral discussion among Japan, China and South Korea, Tokyo must push for closer consultations among the three East Asian neighbors to deal with any “surprise” from the Trump administration on North Korea.
Tokyo also needs to intensify its push to Washington to multilateralize the denuclearization negotiations once North Korea begins to take tangible steps to live up to its commitment.
Finally, Japan needs to engage robustly in the United Nations to insist that, despite the apparent willingness of Russia and China to begin considering relaxing some economic sanctions against North Korea, the international community remain united in enforcing them until North Korea makes tangible progress on denuclearization. By taking on this mission successfully, Abe will be able to regain a position of strength vis-a-vis Trump and leverage his personal relationship with the U.S. president to advance Japan’s national interests.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.