In the flurry of diplomacy, Japan as a stakeholder is both pleased and worried at the same time. Pleased, because if Pyongyang does indeed abide by its announcement to give up nuclear weapons, the immediate threat to its territory would have been removed. It may be recalled that the fear in Japan was real when North Korea fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles last year that flew over its northern island of Hokkaido. Japan is equally worried because if the Trump-Kim summit ends in failure, the situation will be more serious than it is at present.
But the manner in which developments on the Korean Peninsula took place so quickly that Japan felt rattled and has legitimate reason to feel side-lined as it was never consulted either by the US or South Korea on whatever decisions were taken on the Korean issue. What are then Japan’s options?
Apart from the security issue, Japan has other issues to tackle. For Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, resolving the abduction issue is one of the main priorities. When Japan felt overlooked for a role, Abe flew to Washington on 17 April ahead of the Moon-Kim summit on April 27 and the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit between Trump and Kim on June 12 in Singapore for a talk with Trump lest Japan is not forgotten. Japan was even touchy when information about the dessert menu for Moon-Kim summit made way to the media. When Japan learnt that Moon planned to serve Kim a mango mousse decorated with a map of the Korean Peninsula that includes islands over which Tokyo claims sovereignty, Japan lodged an official complaint with its neighbour.
The protest over the dessert menu might look ludicrous but it speaks volume of the long-simmering tensions between the two allies. The disputed islands, in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, are known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan. South Korea regularly depicts the islands on official maps, and Japan just as regularly protests. The speed at which the summit-level diplomacy is playing out, Abe has been cautiously working overtime to keep Japan relevant in regional diplomacy, which is why he travelled to Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, to secure Trump’s agreement to seek the total abandonment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in his talks with Kim, and to press for the return of Japanese citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s. He also spoke with Moon over phone seeking commitment before the latter’s summit with Kim. Yet, Japan seems to be less confident on the assurances received from both Moon and Trump, given the history of the North going back on commitments. Japan, including even ordinary Japanese, simply does not trust words of North Korea.
Dealing with two mercurial leaders – Trump and Kim – has been Japan’s biggest dilemma. While Kim has been unpredictable with his actions, Trump represents a new volatility from the US side. There is a sense dawning in Japan that Trump’s sense of the alliance relationship is different than earlier US Presidents such as Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan who always stood by the spirit of the alliance.
Trump is perceived of being prone to exploit US alliance partners if the situation is in US favour. This trust deficit is getting further exacerbated as talks of reduction of the US forces deployed in Korea are doing the round as an inducement to Kim so that the summit outcome could look promising. Since Moon is seeking a peace treaty with North Korea, if he ultimately accepts North’s demand for reduction or withdrawal of US troops from Korea as a prerequisite to removal of nuclear weapons, it would alarm Japan as it benefits from the US military protection in the region.
Japan’s biggest worry might be an impulsive desire on Trump’s part to declare a quick victory, even at the cost of Japan’s or the region’s security and therefore Trump might accept something short of complete denuclearisation.
Japan fears that Trump could accept Kim’s recent announcement of no longer conducting nuclear weapons test or long-range missiles, thereby accepting to North’s intention to keep what nuclear weapons it has. This means if the North continues to maintain its arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles as a part of the deal that can reach Japan, Japan’s vulnerability would not have diminished a bit. Would Trump be further encouraged to accept such a deal, thereby strengthen his candidature to win the Nobel Peace Prize as proposed by Moon and other Liberal lawmakers in the US? Japan’s dilemma would further continue in that case.
From his side, Kim might be keen to shed his image of being a tyrant and brute ruler and offer some more olive branches to Trump and one could see some of his image change over in the manner in which he conducted himself while meeting with Moon.
Japan suspects Kim’s announcement, as observed in the right-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun, “a tactic to weaken the pressure of the international community’s sanctions” and that “there was no mention of any intention to abandon nuclear and ballistic missiles” in the Panmunjom Declaration.
What is problematic is that the definition of ‘denuclearisation’ is interpreted differently in the US, North Korea and Japan. Trump might see some value in keeping Japan nervous as well as he could have in mind to extract some other concessions on trade issue from Japan. Seen differently, Trump may be keeping Japan’s security deliberately vulnerable as that could compel Japan to buy more weapons for whatever price the US sets.
The return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago is also a priority for Japan and Abe is committed to resolve this long-pending issue. Abe extracted a promise from Trump during his meeting with him on April 17 that Trump shall raise the issue when he meets with Kim. He requested Moon as well for this. Trump could raise this issue but it remains unclear if he would seek any specific action from Kim on this. And that might not please Abe and Japan.
Japan’s security dilemma could also override other considerations if Japan finds itself suddenly confronting to a situation where Moon in his over enthusiasm to unify the peninsula could start pulling away from the US and be drawn further towards China, a North Korean ally. In such a situation, Japan could find itself in an extremely difficult situation. If the Korean peninsula comes under the Chinese influence with US forces going back home, Japan’s security posture would have been dramatically altered, including a possible revisit of its nuclear option, as Japan would no longer be able to rely on the US nuclear deterrence.
In order that such a situation does not unfold, Abe is also exploring the possibility to set up its own summit meeting with Kim. So far, Kim has not responded. Japan might not hesitate to use its economic card to rebuild North’s economy in the larger interest of securing its security and that could be possible if North decides to come out of its self-imposed isolation. Kim might as well seek this opportunity to seek his pound of flesh as Japan that ruled the Korean Peninsula for 35 years as its colony till its capitulation in World War II paid reparation to South Korea in 1965 but not yet to the North. Japan’s vulnerability could be North Korea’s opportunity and the choice is for the latter.