By Pamela Kennedy
After a fall and summer of spiraling tensions between North Korea, its neighbors, and the U.S., the new season of summits is a welcome respite, and one that Japan is determined to use to its advantage. Soon, in meetings with President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have a chance to discuss Trump’s potential meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May – and assess Trump’s preparedness.
Abe will likely find Trump lacking in detailed knowledge of the issues, a sense of priorities and appropriate caution, and what may be used for bargaining and what may not. Abe has outlined three topics that he plans to bring up with Trump: the past abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea, the importance of elimination of short- and intermediate-range missiles for Japan’s security, and reaffirmation of the U.S. and Japan’s policy of “maximum pressure,” namely sanctions.
Abe must approach these talking points without overemphasizing the abductions so that Japan’s security interests are represented in the North Korea talks, and he must also try to reign in Trump’s worst impulses to act unilaterally and push away allies. Abe must also address a crucial element that seems to be missing: the need for China and the U.S. to cooperate on any approach to North Korea.
Abe must be careful to not prioritize the abduction issue above security matters in his meetings with Trump. This is a tricky balancing act. The issue is very salient to the North Korea problem in Japan, as annual polls conducted by the Cabinet Office show that the abduction issue is one of the more recognized concerns of the Japanese public regarding North Korea. Trump expressed an interest in resolving the issue during his visit to Japan in 2017, when he met family members of abductees.
The Abe administration repeated its intention to have the abductions raised in meetings with North Korea and to have the issue resolved, gaining agreement from South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well. North Korea has not offered any new information on the abductees in more than a decade, however, and has told Japan that it considers the issue closed. Even if Trump hopes to resolve the abduction issue, he will inevitably prioritize the nuclear and missile threats to the U.S. If Japan is sidelined in negotiations again due to focusing on the abductions, Abe will lose a chance to ensure that Japan’s own security concerns with North Korea – regional missile capabilities – are addressed in addition to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that threaten the U.S.
Abe instead must focus on discussing the threat of North Korea’s short- and intermediate-range missiles to Japan – and to South Korea and American military bases in the region – as well as the current sanctions regime. Worryingly, the nominee for U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said during his confirmation hearing that the U.S.’s only goal with regards to North Korea is denuclearization to protect the U.S. Abe must ensure that Trump does not ascribe to the same limited perspective on North Korea’s threat to East Asia and U.S. allies. He has an opportunity to demonstrate to Trump the role that alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific play in managing the North Korea threat. Before meeting with Kim, Trump must fully appreciate North Korea’s explicit threat to Japan, separate from the ICBMs, and how the U.S.-Japan alliance, through extended deterrence and missile defense, helps to ensure Japan’s security.
In addition, Trump and Abe have maintained that they support “maximum pressure” on North Korea through the most severe sanctions yet, and they must reaffirm their commitment to sanctions in their meeting. It is unlikely that North Korea will enter negotiations with a genuine intention to consider compromising on its military capabilities, especially after the strides it has made in recent years. Instead, North Korea may hope to reduce tensions temporarily and gather short-term benefits like eased sanctions. By impressing upon Trump the value of American alliances in managing severe threats, Abe can also encourage Trump to support multilateral negotiations with North Korea, rather than attempting “deal-making” one-on-one with Kim.
Abe did not mention China in his summary of talking points, but he should not fail to impress upon Trump the importance of China in handling North Korea. The U.S. and its allies will require China’s cooperation to resolve North Korea’s nuclear threat. Without China’s buy-in, sanctions against North Korea will continue to fall short of their intended punishment, because China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and has been willing to promote watered-down sanctions in the U.N. or to leave them unenforced for North Korea’s benefit.
China’s coordination in contingency planning for a collapse of the North Korean government is also necessary, though China has only recently been open to such discussion as China’s military will arrive in any case to manage refugees and attempt to influence the outcome of the peninsula’s reconfiguration. And the U.S. needs frank communication and cooperation with China to avoid conflict between them over North Korea, due to the standing defense treaty between North Korea and China.
This is not to say that Trump should align the U.S.’s policy on North Korea with China’s, since the U.S. and China hold very different positions on how much provocative North Korean behavior to tolerate and what a denuclearized Korean peninsula should look like. But Trump needs to learn to cultivate a productive relationship with China that is not unnecessarily antagonistic or driven by whims.
The “trade war” Trump is waging against China, for example, is ill-timed in the runup to the North Korea meetings, and, because it hurts Chinese and American exports alike, is just as likely to be used by China to incentivize U.S. cooperation on North Korea as the other way around. Abe, who has worked to improve the strained relations between China and Japan, can offer Trump some guidance on comprehensive management of bilateral relationships: economic and political policies do not exist in separate voids, but interact and can be used as bargaining chips. A win-win situation will involve lose-lose tradeoffs by necessity.
It is not Abe’s duty to try to prepare Trump for this season of talks. But Trump, who is resistant to preparation by his own advisors, might be willing to listen to Abe as someone he likes and with whom he has rapport. The conversation might be difficult, since there is no guarantee that Trump will not deal a careless blow to U.S.-Japan relations beyond the scope of the North Korea problem – after all, Trump has also placed tariffs on Japanese aluminum and steel, making Japan the largest ally to not receive an exemption to the tariffs. Abe will try to convince Trump to give Japan a reprieve on the tariffs in the meeting as well, a rather awkward ask for an ally.
Yet if Abe can steer Trump towards a better understanding of allies’ security concerns, and remind Trump of the value of alliances and partnerships, perhaps belligerence or unskillful negotiation in the Trump-Kim meeting can be avoided. Trump needs to be familiar with the nuances of the security and economic policies towards North Korea from the perspective of allies. And perhaps Trump will remember that how the U.S. treats its friends, in both security and economic policy, matters.