Commentary / Japan

Strike while the iron is hot

by Kuni Miyake

Two months have passed since the top leaders of the United States and North Korea met in Singapore. Some Korea hands in Tokyo were so optimistic about the outcome of the U.S.-North Korea negotiations that they even called the June 12 summit a great first step for peace in Northeast Asia.

Although few people at that time were confident enough to openly challenge their groundless sanguinity, it may be still premature and unfair to conclude, like a Monday morning quarterback, that they were wrong. Nonetheless, I was truly appalled last week when I heard one of them say: “Strike while the iron is hot.”

I do not know when this presumably British proverb started to be commonly used in Japan. In English, the famous saying means “to take advantage of an opportunity as soon as it exists, in case the opportunity goes away and does not return.” The Korea expert suggested that Japan must change its policy vis-a-vis North Korea.

Looking back on the past two months, some fundamental questions arise. Some wonder whether the iron was really hot or whether what was hot wasn’t the iron but the hammer. Others even doubt if there was any iron in the first place when U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.

The debate continues in Japan. Although I disagree with those optimistic pundits in Tokyo over the real meaning of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, I cannot be 100 percent confident that North Korean leaders are just cheating and lying, and have no intention of giving up their nuclear arsenal.

The following is the maximum I can say; Kim might have determined that he may have to someday abandon at least part of his country’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for political, economic and military concessions from the U.S. and its allies. However, Kim, only after getting enough takeaways available at each negotiation, would denuclearize North Korea as a last resort — possibly at the final phase of the negotiations with the U.S. Talks could last for years, if not decades, and may require more than one U.S. president to finalize a deal.

Is this a great first step for peace in Northeast Asia? Hardly. Did Kim bring an iron to the summit in Singapore? Hopefully. Was the iron hot enough? Probably not and it may never be. Instead, Trump heated up his own hammer and could not even grab it to strike the iron.

Kim is aware that before the U.S. midterm election Trump cannot publicly admit failure in his negotiations with North Korea. Since complete denuclearization is the ultimate trump card for Kim to play only in the final stage, he sees no contradiction in maintaining his nuclear programs while returning the remains of fallen U.S. soldiers from the Korean War.

In a nutshell, the June 12 summit shows that if surrounded by a group of shrewd senior advisers, a thirty-something inexperienced dictator of a small, poor country can outsmart the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, who has dozens of experienced foreign policy and national security experts in the White House.

Ironically, according to a most prestigious Japanese dictionary published in Tokyo, the phrase “strike while the iron is hot” in Japanese has two meanings. This expression also means here “to provide inexperienced or amateurs with proper education or training while they are younger.” Yes, this is a proverb for Trump as well.

Recent news articles reported from Washington seem to suggest that something is happening, or not happening, inside the Trump administration. Is Trump’s national security team divided? Or, are they united but just reluctant to challenge the president, who can fire any one of them via Twitter?

Tokyo had a similar experience several years ago. It was chaotic indeed. In retrospect, the administrations of the Democratic Party of Japan, which won the general election in 2009, was doomed to be short-lived. Defeating the Liberal Democratic Party was easier than governing the entire nation of Japan.

The first two DPJ prime ministers were particularly disastrous. They were typical populist politicians who were not interested in substance, always concerned about opinion polls and determined to undo whatever the previous LDP administrations had decided or implemented. Does this ring a bell?

They also put the Japan-U.S. security alliance at risk by misleading the Okinawans over the issue of Futenma and by wooing Japan’s potential adversaries such as China. While they despised the establishment and elites in Tokyo, they could not properly manage the Fukushima crisis in March 2011.

They claimed DPJ was special and, therefore, different from other parties. The reality, however, is that they were much worse than the LDP. Some observers in Tokyo immediately found that something was wrong, but it took three years for a majority of Japanese voters to realize that.

Back to the U.S.-North Korea negotiations. If those bilateral talks were a boxing match, North Korea won the first round on June 12. The next questions is: Who’s winning in the second round? Or, is there a second round at all? Even if the new round has already started, it’s clear that there has not been significant movement.

This leads to the final question: Is there a hot iron for Trump to strike? It is getting more and more clear that North Korea may not be boxing. The more time we spend with the North, the less concrete results we can expect. Isn’t this the reality in this historical U.S.-North Korea boxing match?

Now, the Japanese version of the “strike it while it’s hot” proverb applies more to Trump than to North Korea. In September, Kim may be visiting New York for the United Nations annual gathering. If Trump is considering a second summit meeting with Kim there, we will probably lose the boxing match in the third round.

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