Japan was so concerned that its security interests would be overlooked in a U.S. nuclear deal with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House just before President Donald Trump left for Canada and Singapore. Yet Japan’s strategic imperatives and interests were barely on Trump’s mind when he met Kim. Despite Trump saying that he raised with Kim the decades-old North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, Japan’s interests got short-shrift.
With the Singapore summit yielding only a joint statement, Trump has bet on what he called a “very special bond” and “terrific relationship” with Kim to secure a real deal. It is worth remembering that Trump has said similar things about Abe and several other world leaders, only to ignore their interests or turn on them later. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, is still licking his wounds.
As Trump’s announcement to suspend U.S. war games with South Korea underscored, he is seeking to narrowly advance American interests, especially saving money — a factor that he said could eventually lead him to bring back home the 32,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. A dilution of U.S. security commitments in northeast Asia, however, is contrary to Japanese strategic interests.
Trump is only stoking Japanese concerns about America’s long-term commitment to regional security by signaling that a rapprochement with North Korea could possibly lead to a broader U.S. retreat from northeast Asia. Announcing the suspension of the war games without prior notification to South Korea, for example, sent the wrong message to allies, although U.S. and South Korean officials had previously discussed this option.
More fundamentally, Trumps seems unmindful of the fact that the alliance system is essential — and cost-effective — for the United States to pursue its regional objectives, including maintaining a stable balance of power.
Tokyo, in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies, pays billions of dollars yearly for the basing of U.S. troops on Japanese territory. South Korea, in addition to its host-nation support, has generously picked up about 92% of the $10.8 billion cost of the U.S. military’s new base, Camp Humphreys, located south of Seoul. It is much cheaper for the U.S. to keep troops in South Korea (or Japan) than to have them back home.
To Trump’s credit, he has correctly described as “very provocative” the U.S.-led war games, which, with live-fire drills, simulate every spring a full-scale invasion of North Korea. Critics are upset that he has lifted the pretense that these war games are routine “military exercises” and defensive in nature.
Progress toward denuclearization, however, is likely to be slow. The joint statement implicitly links denuclearization to “mutual confidence building.” What has been set in motion is a complex, long process of bargaining, deal making and, if all goes well, denuclearizing.
The joint statement’s reference to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not just North Korea, means creating a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Such a zone can emerge only if South Korea steps out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and America, China and Russia formally commit not to introduce, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
For decades, Japan and South Korea have remained under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But, in reality, the U.S. is unlikely to use nuclear weapons to defend Japan or South Korea; it will rely instead on conventional weapons. The nuclear umbrella serves more as a potent symbol of U.S. commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent either ally from developing its own nuclear weapons.
Still, if South Korea agrees to be outside the American nuclear umbrella, Japan — the world’s only victim of nuclear bombings — will find itself in the odd position of being the sole Asian country inside the umbrella. This will hardly sit well with its diplomatic interests.
But what prompted Abe’s latest White House visit was concern that Washington could tolerate a North Korean sub-regional nuclear arsenal if Kim dismantled his long-range nuclear capability that threatens America. Tokyo’s security nightmare is North Korea retaining the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal while China continues to expand its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. If North Korea kept a residual, subregionally confined nuclear capability, it would reinforce Japanese and South Korean reliance on security arrangements with America.
Such a scenario is not improbable, especially with the Trump administration saying goodbye to the “Libya model” and seeking instead to apply the “South Africa model” to North Korea.
The administration’s early brinkmanship almost derailed the Singapore summit when its references to the Libya model provocatively suggested that Kim follow a path that ultimately led to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s gruesome end. But, recognizing North Korea’s longstanding resistance to intrusive international inspections, U.S. officials now say their role model is apartheid-era South Africa.
Before transiting to black majority rule, South Africa secretly dismantled its six nuclear weapons, destroying all major documents relating to them but stashing weapons-grade enriched uranium. It then opened its sites to international inspection.
Such voluntary denuclearization outside international monitoring is not an example of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, which is what Japan wants to see in North Korea. America’s focus, however, is on safeguarding its own security. Trump, after the summit, wrote online that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the U.S., adding that Americans should “sleep well tonight.”
While his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has spoken of “in-depth verification,” North Korea is likely to allow external inspectors only limited access at best. Intrusive international monitoring, with inspectors free to go anywhere, could sound the death knell for Kim’s secretive regime. In the past, the U.S. has sent intelligence agents as international nuclear inspectors, as the Iraq investigations revealed.
A Japan exposed to a potential North Korean nuclear strike would be open to atomic blackmail and coercion. Yet, some U.S. officials and analysts have characterized Japan’s insistence on complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament as “maximalist,” as if seeking a deal that addresses only U.S. security interests (as the Trump administration is apparently doing) amounts to a reasonable stance.
Another issue also highlights how self-interest drives U.S. policy. The joint statement commits North Korea to repatriate the remains of American military personnel missing from the Korean War. But it contains no reference to a highly emotive subject in Japan — abductions of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents to train as spies. Trump said he “absolutely” raised that topic but did not indicate what Kim’s response was.
Let’s be clear: Dismantling North Korea’s extensive nuclear infrastructure will entail a long-drawn-out process. Nuclear weapons are the only assets the North can leverage to end its international pariah status. Kim is unlikely to give up his “crown jewels” without U.S. security guarantees that go beyond symbolic steps and a temporary halt of U.S.-led war games. Nor will he unilaterally disarm without reciprocal actions to turn the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
While Trump is seeking, to quote Pompeo, “major disarmament” in the remainder of his current term, Kim, who is less than half the age of the U.S. president, has a much longer time horizon. Kim is playing a long game to ease his country’s international isolation and build an independent foreign policy that diminishes dependence on China.
A stretched-out denuclearization process, however, suits China too. It will allow Beijing to string the U.S. along on North Korea while it stakes out a key role for itself by leveraging its status as a linchpin to keeping Pyongyang under economic pressure. More ominously, U.S. preoccupation with North Korea will aid China’s territorial and maritime revisionism in the Indo-Pacific region, including consolidating its hold in the South China Sea. To gain dominance in Asia, Beijing is seeking to marginalize Japan and weaken the U.S. alliance with South Korea.
Japan today finds itself thoroughly marginalized on the North Korean issue, despite that subject’s critical importance to its long-term security. Abe’s tireless efforts to cultivate Trump have yielded little on that front.
In this light, Japan has no option but to directly deal with Pyongyang. Indeed, this is the central takeaway for Japan from Trump’s North Korea diplomacy.
To be meaningful, such engagement must be without preconditions. There is no reason why the abductions issue should still hold Japan’s strategic interests hostage. At a time when Kim is seeking to mend fences with different powers, Japanese engagement could help persuade Pyongyang to reopen talks on the abductions topic and come clean.
Abe should seek to meet Kim on the sidelines of the Sept. 11-13 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia. Kim is likely to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to attend that annual forum.
Make no mistake: The main lesson for Japan is that, instead of relying on Washington, it must directly engage North Korea by leveraging its economic might and soft power and playing to Kim’s rebalancing aspiration.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.