Diplomatic nightmare: Japan scrambling after Trump ‘pulled the rug out’
Getting rid of nukes on the Korean peninsula. It sounds great in a tweet — but the practical reality of what that might look like is rattling the highest levels of the Japanese Government and should concern Australia, according to one US national security expert.
On Tuesday, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit the United States as part of an intense diplomatic bid to make sure the US doesn't agree to anything with the North Koreans that would threaten the security of the world's third biggest economy.
The Japanese government has recently copped a few blindsides from the US — from a potential trade feud over steel tariffs and the sudden announcement President Donald Trump would meet the North Korean leader.
Japan has been "unhappily" sidelined and caught by surprise particularly over the North Korea talks, according to Jeffrey Kingston, Temple University of Japan's Director of Asian Studies.
"Abe thought he and Trump were on the same page in opposing talks and maximising pressure — until Trump pulled the rug out from under him," Professor Kingston said.
The reality — or perception — that any country is being left out in the cold is a diplomatic nightmare.
South and North Korea will hold talks later this month, ahead of the proposed Trump-Kim meeting rumoured for late May — but Japan does not have any direct talks lined up with Pyongyang.
Japan has had two North Korean missiles fly over the country's north in the past 12 months, it doesn't have a seat at the table.
Denuclearisation 'a complete nothing burger'
You can understand why it didn't take long for Mr Abe to line up this trip to the United States — it was arranged as soon as he learnt of the proposed meeting.
External Link: Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!
Mr Abe will remind the President about just how much Japan has to lose and the importance of the "maximum pressure" strategy.
Michael Green, who served in former US president George W. Bush's National Security Council as senior director for Asian affairs, said there were a handful of things that Mr Trump could agree to that would be "deeply unnerving for US allies and military".
"Denuclearising the peninsula — on the surface sounds reasonable," he said.
"I can tell you from negotiations I've had with the North Koreans in the Bush administration — and Democrats in the Clinton administration will tell you the same thing — when the North Koreans say denuclearisation of Korean peninsula what they mean is that the US has to end is nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea and withdraw its forces and end its threat.
"Then and only then is North Korea prepared in theory hypothetically to talk about its nuclear weapons program — it's a complete nothing burger."
Professor Green said there was no meaningful significance in North Korea's position — and any wrong move could put the region, including Australia, at risk.
"But the President of the United States seems to think he's achieved what no other president has, by getting the North Koreans to agree to something they've always said they'd do, which is a fake aspiration for denuclearisation — once we've pulled all our forces and our nuclear umbrella off of the peninsula," he said.
"[That] is unacceptable to Japan, would be unacceptable to Australia and would be unacceptable to South Korea.
"A peace treaty may [also] seem appealing — but if we start pulling apart the legal basis for our alliance we will invite pressure, including within South Korea, to dismantle American forward presence in Asia, which will have a direct impact on the security of Australia."
Pompeo testimony 'should concern Japan and South Korea'
CIA Director Mike Pompeo — Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of State — wouldn't have given the Japanese a great deal of assurance either.
He told his US Senate confirmation hearing last week that the aim of the Trump-Kim summit would be "an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons."
Professor Jeffrey Kingston said that testimony should concern both Japan and South Korea.
"He repeated twice his view that the priority was to cut a deal that protected the US — so the big risk is that Kim [Jong-un] makes some limited concessions (intercontinental ballistic missiles) that address US security concerns but retains nuclear capabilities would threaten its allies," he said.
"Abe will try to convince him that such appeasement would be a grave mistake and undermine the alliance."
Mr Abe told the Japanese parliament last week that getting rid of only intercontinental ballistic missiles — which North Korea said could reach the US mainland — had "no meaning for Japan", and that he wanted "to tell the US President that [North Korea] should also abandon short and intermediate range missiles that put Japan within range."
US State Department spokeswoman Katrina Adams said Washington remained "committed to achieving the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula" and its commitment to the defence of South Korea and Japan was "ironclad".
Abe 'discovers limits of personal diplomacy'
Mr Abe has worked hard to maintain a personal relationship with Mr Trump, but it seems like things are far from the days of the "Donald and Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater" hats.
"I think Abe has discovered the limits of personal diplomacy with an erratic character like Trump who prioritises America first, not the alliance," Professor Kingston said.
Both leaders are suffering from a series of scandals in their home countries — Mr Trump is positioning for the midterms and Mr Abe's government has been hit by fresh revelations that have deepened cronyism and coverup suspicions.
A recent poll from Kyodo news showed public support for Mr Abe's cabinet dropped more than five points to 37 per cent.
He'll be hoping this trip can bolster those numbers — which could come by winning support from Mr Trump to push Pyongyang on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and '80s by the North.
"Abe will find a sympathetic ear in [Trump's new National Security Adviser] John Bolton, who prefers to attack rather than the negotiate, and the human rights angle of the abductions would be useful to derail the peace express," Professor Kingston said.
The South Koreans don't appear to be overly interested in specifically raising that during the talks — the Japanese Foreign Minister tried to seek support from Seoul to put it on the agenda during the meeting, but it received a lukewarm response.
The issue of abductions is incredibly important in Japan — but is considered separate to the denuclearisation talks.
That's the problem for Japan right now — it's reliant on others to push its position.
This week we're sure to get some sense of how strong the Abe-Trump relationship really is.