Japan's unique, precarious position ahead of Kim-Trump summit

Japan's unique, precarious position ahead of Kim-Trump summit
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will soon meet in Singapore for a summit aimed at reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s unexpected attempt at high-level diplomacy generated anxiety in Japan, a U.S. ally on the front lines of the threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs that naturally wants any dialogue with Pyongyang to reflect its interests.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Trump back in April and again last week to stress that the president address the full range of concerns about North Korean behavior, including all its weapons of mass destruction as well as human rights violations, and that he resist the temptation to strike a deal that might not resolve these issues in a comprehensive manner.


Abe’s shuttle diplomacy also had broader strategic implications: He reaffirmed Japan’s commitment to coordinate closely with the United States, an important counter to a strategy by North Korea and China to weaken U.S. alliances during a period of geostrategic competition in Asia. 

Abe has emphasized that any agreement with North Korea should cover both its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which threaten Japan, as well as the intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the United States.

He also is calling for the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear programs and for talks to not omit any of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons.

If the Singapore summit does indeed mark the beginning of a dialogue process, as the president recently suggested, Abe wants to ensure that the full docket of concerns about the North Korean security threat are included.

The Group of Seven countries recently echoed these sentiments in a joint communiqué, though President Trump did not endorse the statement after host nation Canada criticized his stance on trade.

Abe also stressed that economic sanctions should be maintained to pressure the North Korean regime, a strategy Trump had endorsed until he accepted an invitation to a summit with Kim Jong Un earlier this year. Trump recently disavowed the “maximum pressure” policy to generate a positive atmosphere for the summit.

But last week, with Abe by his side, he stated that the policy was still in effect, perhaps a signal that Kim Jong Un’s desire for immediate sanctions relief may not be realized.

Japan hopes that the president discusses security issues comprehensively and does not dangle economic aid upfront as an incentive to a regime that has reneged on previous agreements, such as the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 joint statement in the Six-Party Talks, aimed at denuclearization.           

Trump also assured Abe that he would discuss with Kim the plight of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

This is an important human rights issue that gets to the nature of the North Korean regime, and Abe has discussed the abductee issue repeatedly as a reminder to the international community that North Korea’s human rights violations should not be overlooked. President Trump referenced the abductee issue in his address to the U.N. General Assembly last year and met with relatives of abductees in Japan last November.

But in a joint press conference with Trump, he also addressed the prospect of engaging Kim directly on this issue and noted that Japan is willing to normalize relations with North Korea and consider economic cooperation per a bilateral statement issued in 2002 (the Pyongyang Declaration) if Japan’s concerns about the abductees and the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs are resolved.

Abe’s recent visits to Washington were not designed solely to relay Japan’s concerns about North Korea; they were also meant to demonstrate the vitality of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Abe commended the president’s efforts at diplomacy and reiterated Japan’s commitment to continue coordinating closely with the United States on this challenge.

This declaration of alliance solidarity sent an important signal to North Korea and China, both of which would like to weaken U.S. influence in the region and envision regional security architecture without alliances as a means toward that end.

Abe understands that the Singapore summit is not just about security on the Korean Peninsula; the outcome of this process could also have ramifications for the future balance of power in Asia. A coordinated strategy on North Korea is therefore critical as Japan and the United States try to manage geostrategic competition with China.   

Japan, like other U.S. allies, is adjusting to the unpredictable nature of President Trump’s foreign policy, and Abe’s recent meetings with the president on North Korea arguably reflect that reality.

Abe has endorsed Trump’s stab at diplomacy but made clear Japan’s desire for a process that addresses the full range of concerns about North Korea, does not offer rewards in advance and is part of a joint strategy that sends a signal of alliance solidarity to the region.

The Singapore summit is fraught with risk and uncertainty, but regardless of the outcome, Japan will stand by ready to coordinate closely with the United States as a matter of strategic imperative.

Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.