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Japan Diary

May 18, 2018

North Korea's Nuclear Capability: The Fundamental Question Confronting Japan

(This was first published in the site of the English-Speaking Union of Japanhttp://www.esuj.gr.jp/jitow/532_index_detail.php#japanese)

What will the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore bring to the region. A cardinal change in geopolitical configuration is what Japan should be most concerned about and should prepare for..

It has been announced that US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet for talks in mid June. In terms of their unpredictability, these are two of what we might call the greatest stars on the international political stage today. Almost anything can be expected from their meeting.

On March 26, however, when Kim surprised the world by meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, we saw the introduction of one constant to the anything-goes situation on the Korean Peninsula. Their summit made it clear that the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship remains unshakeable for the time being.

Why did Xi, who by all accounts was not fond of Kim, accept him at this juncture? The answer probably lies in China's fear of what Trump might do. "Trump is the kind of person who does not hesitate pulling America back from the Korean peninsula," Xi may well have thought. "This could give North Korea a free hand, prompting them to take a hostile stance against China, just as the medieval kingdom of Goguryeo once did against the Sui and Tang Dynasties. We need to bring Kim Jong-un firmly to our side to avoid this peril." This seems a likely reason for Xi's invitation of Kim to Beijing.

If, as a result of this maneuvering, we see a continuation of the standoff between North Korea and China on the one hand and South Korea and the United States on the other, what should we expect from the Kim-Trump talks? The most they are likely to produce is a vague agreement along the lines of a halt to North Korean ICBM testing; a scaling back of the joint military exercises carried out by South Korean and US forces; further efforts by both sides to denuclearize North Korea; and, matching the pace of those efforts, the launch of discussions on relaxing sanctions on the North. Other questions, like whether Pyongyang will allow international inspections of its nuclear weapons program or whether it will give up its nuclear missiles that are not ICBMs (questions that both Japan and South Korea find of vital importance), are just as likely to be kicked down the road for later discussion. Even this smaller package would be enough for Trump to use as a record of success in coming elections.

Now that North Korea has secured a summit meeting with the US president and improved relations with Beijing, it sees much less value in engagement with Japan. Even if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushes through with a visit to North Korea, he will find it difficult to make any headway on the issue of abducted Japanese nationals, making it impossible in turn to explain the value of his visit to the Japanese public. All Japan can do now is quietly await its next chance to make a meaningful diplomatic move.

There are now vigorous fears in Japan that "Trump may betray us"--that through his single-minded focus on heading off the threat of intercontinental missiles, he will turn a blind eye to the mid- and short-range projectiles that remain a threat to Japan and South Korea. We must note, however, that even if this does come to pass, the actual situation will have changed little from where we already are. Just a few years ago, the North Koreans had no ICBMs, but they were equipped with a number of mid- and short-range Rodong and Taepodong missiles. Japan's stance at the time was that the US nuclear umbrella was sufficient deterrent against their use.

If a similar situation arises once again, Japan now has more options to handle it. First, it could develop its own deterrent capability. The quickest and most effective way to do so would be to equip its submarine fleet with cruise missiles. Second, it could ask the United States to bolster the nuclear umbrella--in short, by having the American military's cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads, just as the US Department of Defense's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review indicates. (Current Tomahawk cruise missiles used to be mounted with a nuclear warhead, but they were dismantled under the Obama administration based on the decision by the Bush (junior) administration).

The emergence of a true wildcard, however, such as an announcement at the US-North Korea summit that a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War would be accompanied by the withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula, would be a game-changer for the Far East. South Korea would be isolated in security terms, and would likely seek to address the situation by forging cooperative ties, or even pursuing reunification, with North Korea. This would result in the emergence of a major nuclear power with a GDP larger than Russia's.

Japan has no way to prevent such a situation from coming about. This does not mean the time has come to panic, though. The Korean Peninsula has long been a key diplomatic counterpart for Japan, alongside China. The ebbs and flows in Sino-Japanese ties have been accompanied by shifts in ties between Japan and Korea, sometimes growing closer and at other times more distant, or even antagonistic. Japan and the nations of the neighboring peninsula are not locked in an eternal pattern of hostile opposition. Indeed, it will more likely be China and Russia that present the key security concerns for a newly united Korea.

If the Koreas do reunify, the United States may end its involvement on the Korean Peninsula, but it will probably seek to maintain its military presence in Japan. Without their bases on Japanese territory, the Americans would find it impossible to defend Taiwan and considerably more difficult to maintain a presence in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and areas extending to the Middle East. And if Japan were to weaken or walk away from its alliance with the United States, leaning toward China instead, then Washington would lose much of its standing in East Asia as a whole. Thus the Japan-US alliance is likely to be maintained as long as Japan so wishes. Tokyo, therefore, should act on the premise that the deterrence under the Japan-US alliance will remain in place, boosting its international standing through enhanced armament to defend itself and using this standing to underpin its moves in the East Asian power games.

The North Koreans and Donald Trump have similar habits: after delivering a steady stream of abuse, to engage in diplomacy at the eleventh hour, eventually making reasonable deals. Japan, meanwhile, has to give thought to all possible outcomes, doing what it can to prevent those that are least beneficial for it and avoiding panic at all costs.


Author: Tofa Tula | June 3, 2018 10:28 AM

I miss such balanced and precise analysis about the coming meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in German and other European online newspapers. Whether this is due to lack of inside knowledge and diplomatic experience or sheer disinterest I do not know.

(Thank you for a rare serious comment. Newspapers anywhere mostly discuss stereotypes and not facts. But without them we bloggers lose raison d'etre.

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