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Trump-Kim summit and Japan's dilemma

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Trump-Kim summit and Japan's dilemma

The domestic variables of Japan and the dynamics of domestic politics impinging on the nation's external situation seem to have been overlooked, writes RAJARAM PANDA

While the world media has gone agog on the prospect of a summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un "by May", there are several imponderables that are either underreported or overlooked as the unexpected optimism generated by Kim's desire for a summit with Trump refuses to accommodate any negative thoughts to the narrative. The part that baffles watchers of Korean issues is that it was strangely South Korea's National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong, who had returned from Pyongyang and then travelled to Washington to brief Trump about the summit proposal. It was equally baffling that Trump, without going through the normal consultation with his staff and diplomatic channel, spontaneously announced his readiness to meet with Kim.

There is no announcement as yet from Pyongyang about the summit proposal. The manner in which the summit idea has been floated, bypassing established norms, it gives an element of doubt if the summit would even take place. Thinking positively, if it takes place, it shall be the biggest news of this century. If it fails, the situation will be worse than the present. There is no clarity on who are the people to be involved, what agenda would be on the table, what concessions each can be expected to concede to arrive at some sort of compromise and many more.

Amidst this confusing situation, there are related issues that are not discussed threadbare. For example, what is Japan's position? Is Japan taken on board on any attempt towards mediation with North Korea? What if Kim insists during the summit that the US do away with the annual joint military drills without consulting South Korea and Japan unilaterally and Trump agrees; how would Japan and South Korea prepare for the new situation that could unfold suddenly? The domestic variables of Japan and the dynamics of domestic politics impinging on the nation's external situation seem to have been overlooked in any analysis. Given that Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe's revisionist policies are well known, can one expect a dramatic turnaround in Japan's defence posture if security environment in the immediate neighbourhood deteriorates and is perceived in Japan as an imminent threat? How would Japan cope with the new situation remains in the realm of conjecture. These and many more related issues remain unexplained and are thus worrying, for which new analysis is needed by scholars of Korean affairs.

The South Korea-US joint annual military drills, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, that were postponed but not suspended because of the PyeongChang Winter Games in February, are scheduled to resume on April 1. And it would be of a "scale similar to that of the previous years'". Pyongyang has not changed its position and continues to see the drills as a rehearsal for invasion. Slated to start on April 1 and expected to conclude towards the end of May, the drills would involve 23,700 US troops and 300,000 South Korean forces. Pyongyang has denounced the drills in the past and is expected to counter the US if the exercises went ahead. How the joint military drills are going to impact the planned summit is anybody's guess. This single example is enough to rock the forthcoming summit. The issue is too complicated to get a full, or at least a nearly clear, answer.

 

JAPAN'S POSITION

It is true that Japan-US security alliance relationship remains the lynchpin of bilateral ties, but fissures could emerge suddenly which could impact Japan's policy option dramatically. I am making this bold assertion because of impetuous decisions that Trump has been taking during the past few months, both domestically and on external issues. Already the prospect of a Trump-Kim summit has fanned fears that Japan is being sidelined on North Korean issue, though for the present, Abe is trying to hide Japanese angst by saying there was no diplomatic daylight between Tokyo and Washington. 

Irrespective of the fact that Abe is trying his best to manage or adjust with Trump's tantrums and endorsed his response to Kim's invitation seeking a dramatic breakthrough in the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang, he told the media after receiving a telephone call from Trump that both would continue to be hundred per cent together, confirming that he would meet Trump in Washington in April. Though the Japan-US security alliance exists, there is simmering suspicion in Japan that Trump may cut a deal with Kim to protect its cities from nuclear attack while leaving Japan vulnerable. The two missiles fired by North Korea, that flew over the northern island of Hokkaido, still rankle Japan. Japan is often targeted by North Korea's bellicose rhetoric and threats. Though Trump claims even before getting any clear signal from Kim that the latter talked about denuclearisation with Chung, not just a freeze, Japan would be naïve to believe such assurances. Japan worries the outcome of the talks will fall short of its insistence that the North abandons its nuclear and missile development. It was, therefore, Tokyo wanted a commitment on this by Pyongyang to be a precondition for talks.

If one hazards a guess, and if the summit takes place, there could be three possible scenarios: Pyongyang agrees to denuclearise, it agrees on a nuclear freeze, or it goes back to missile launches. Though none of the three could be the 100 per cent outcome, the second could be near-possibility, which would give Japan ground to feel really sidelined as its 'precondition' demand would have been ignored. Brad Glosserman, a visiting professor at Tama University, is quoted to have remarked in a news report that a freeze would worry Japan as it would "lock in North Korea's limited nuclear capacity and its existing capacity to hit Japan and South Korean targets while the US is out of range". He further said, "it would legitimise Kim Jong-un in ways that Japan doesn't want to see". 

Some Japanese lawmakers feel that Trump was unlikely to agree to a freeze. By playing this game, Pyongyang could gain time to complete its nuclear arms programme and thus bolster its bargaining leverage. Going by this argument, if Pyongyang achieves its goal of developing a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the US, Japan shall be left with no choice than to bolster its deterrence and may even ask the US to deploy nuclear submarines in its vicinity. Japan revisiting the nuclear option could be another possibility.

There is also a view that takes a contrarian stance that Japan is not really left out. Those who hold this positive view feel that unlike previous US Presidents, Trump is different. With his prowess as a dealmaker stemming from his business acumen, Trump is shrewdly and effectively using both carrot and stick to get the desired outcome. By meeting Kim, Trump shall go down in history as writing a new page, which no other President could achieve.

There is a downside to this optimism, however. His handling of staff and firing of senior officers has exposed his diplomatic inexperience and resulted in a dearth of veterans who could deal with North Korea diplomatically and effectively. This is troubling. Trump needs experienced bureaucrats to deal with Pyongyang. Assuming the first summit, if it takes place, is held but ends in a whimper with no result, working for another summit meeting could be even more difficult than the first, which would be seen as a mistake. These are the gaps that Japan would be considering before crafting its own policy choices.

 

OPTIONS BEFORE JAPAN

It is difficult to say if Abe rejoiced when Trump made a telephone call to Abe on March 9 to convey the "good news". The good news being the impending summit meeting with Kim by May, it was certainly not as if it caught Japan off guard. Japan, which had been working with the US shoulder-to-shoulder to put maximum pressure on Pyongyang and rein in its military provocations, was not consulted before Trump took such an important decision.

The news caused shockwaves in Tokyo. This sudden shift in direction by Trump from belligerent taunts to readiness for a summit meeting triggered concern in Japan. Japan could not conceive the idea that it would be kept away from the table on negotiations on the denuclearisation of North Korea. To adjust to this sudden turn of event, Abe proposed to Trump that he would travel to the US for a personal meeting. To save face, Abe told the media that both Japan and the US were 100 per cent together on the issue. But the overwhelming opinion in the establishment was that "dialogue for dialogue's sake was meaningless".

In principle, Japan was never against a dialogue between Trump and Kim. What Japan disapproved of was the fact that it was not consulted. Japan had argued that North Korea must take specific steps, such as allowing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, before any dialogue or negotiations could be held. Japan has cited North Korea as a "national threat" and based on this premise he called a snap Lower House election in October 2017. Now Abe could suddenly find lawmakers questioning his national security policy as Trump bypassed Japan without consultation to reach out to Kim. Based on the perceived national threat from North Korea and ways to respond, the deployment of the Aegis Ashore land-based missile defence system was planned. Senior officers in the Government firmly believe that it is unlikely that Pyongyang would ever abandon nuclear weapons that it has already got. On the other hand, it would always strive towards perfecting them further.

Assuming that Trump and Kim reach an agreement on intercontinental ballistic missiles, but not include North Korea's other ballistic projectiles that clearly have Japan within range, would Japan feel safe from the summit outcome? When Abe visits Washington in April, he is expected to bring such issues into discussion with Trump. However, given that Trump is always so unpredictable, it is difficult to say how much Abe's suggestions and advice/warning can influence Trump. Irrespective of the outcome either way, Japan's security dilemma is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are personal and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India

 
 
 
 
 

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