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CWA # 97, 18 March 2019

Trump-Kim Summit & Regional Stakes
For Japan, No Deal is Good Deal

  Seetha Lakshmi Dinesh Iyer

Though, a failed summit with no deal has put the Japanese fears at bay for a while, any future meetings with a premature finale would only increase Japan’s concerns and put it at the edge to look for newer options, most likely military to tackle its national threat.

Research Associate, ISSSP, NIAS

 

Japan has once again re-emphasized its position over recognizing North Korea as a continued and immediate threat by vocally supporting the American president’s famous walk away from the US-North Korea summit well apart the usual camaraderie. This would mean a “no deal” on sanctions relief stands a “good deal” for Japan. So, why is Tokyo looking for a no deal? What have been the Japanese expectations of the summit from Singapore to Hanoi? Given the security dilemma closer home, will Japan have to go the nuclear way?

 

Tokyo’s North Korean situation

Japan has not managed to hold a good relation with its North Korean neighbor. The most primary of the reason being its Nuclear Weapons Programme. The island claims that many of its ballistic missiles have flew over Japan pushing it into a perpetual threat situation. The second reason lies deep in the history of the 1970s and the 80s when Japanese citizens were abducted to be trained as spies. Abe’s efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with its neighbor has remained murky since then. However, in a 2002 declaration, the Abe administration clarified that progress on the kidnapping issue which is rather emotional and other cooperation if any is sure to remain at stake unless there are staunch steps towards denuclearization further indicating little progress over normalization of ties.  Presently, Japan is possibly the only country alongside other major players such as the US, Russia, China and South Korea which has not gotten into any diplomatic engagement with North Korea since Pyongyang began to expand diplomatic expedition early last year.

 

No deal is a good deal

For Japan, as of now, a no deal over sanction relief clearly remains a good deal. The Abe administration seem to believe that anything below a complete denuclearization might not qualify for a talk over sanctions relief let alone an immediate measure. Whatever be, clearly, a partial step by step progress is not going to help the Japanese tackle their neighborhood peninsula.

 

One of the worst concerns lingering over the summit had been the possibilities of Trump accepting to Kim’s terms and pave way for partial incentives without meeting its end goal over denuclearization. This came especially after Trump suspended joint military exercises with South Korea soon after the first Singapore summit, indicating the possibility of an American troop withdrawal from the Korean peninsula. Though, the Tokyo-Washington security alliance remains at the core of the island’s larger bilateral relations, the Abe administration have been wary about Trump’s unpredictable and transactional policies on Korea lately. But, on the other hand, known for his difference in approach, Trump could be playing the carrot and stick to reach a desired outcome to probably broaden its bargaining capacity.

 

Within the Abe administration, there is a widespread suspicion and consistent fear that any upcoming interaction might see Trump signing a deal with Kim only to protect the American cities from trouble still putting Japan in a vulnerable position and push it to dark. This could be in lines with popular skeptics on Trump and Kim trying to reach an agreement on intercontinental ballistic missiles initially, but not include North Korea's other short-range ballistic facilities that has Japan within range. Being a weak player in the nuclear and defense posture and, given an inconsistent North Korean track record, Tokyo certainly dreads a resumption of missile tests and nuclear program as a single bargaining tool even after incentives over sanctions relief. In such a scenario, Japan might either have to tighten its own national boundaries and probably have US troops lined around its border or build its own facilities over outsourcing as covertly the island worries America’s changing policy towards China, Korea and the rest. This explains why Japan is trying to revisit its nuclear option. On the flip side, going nuclear would, however, come with its own complexities including the violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As for now, Washington-administered nuclear umbrella is what would work best for Tokyo and keep the US committed to Japanese concerns to an extent.

 

From Singapore to Hanoi

The Abe administration has not been very happy about America’s evolving Korean arc. Though, the Singapore summit raised assenting expectations over the nuclear threat, subsequent actions from Washington has only accelerated concerns and mistrust. Speaking of the best possible outcome it could have looked up to from the Hanoi Summit would have possibly been some specific steps for Pyongyang’s denuclearization. However, this being said, there wouldn’t have effectively been a scope for optimism over the summit outcomes for Japan. It might essentially have to come in terms with fact that it needs to co-exist with a nuclear North Korea and shift its threat matrix.

 

Though, a failed summit with no deal has put the Japanese fears at bay for a while, any future meetings with a premature finale would only increase Japan’s concerns and put it at the edge to look for newer options, most likely military to tackle its national threat. Though the island seems to have accommodated and lauded American efforts and the summit outcomes, it still disapproves the fact that it was not consulted.  As an immediate country in the vicinity at great risk of attack, Japan has been pushing for specific steps from North Korean leadership before any negotiations or dialogue at the international level such as allowing inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

 

Recent reports suggest that the two leaders, Abe and Trump, have decided to meet on diplomatic grounds this April. It is expected that the Japanese leadership will bring in all its insecurities and suggestions to the fore for further negotiations. Given that, with an unpredictable ally, it remains difficult to say how much of Abe’s advice can really influence Trump. Either way, Japan’s security dilemma is a thing that is here to exist until concrete action plans unveil.

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