Japan’s New Uncertainty Post-Sentosa

If Tokyo was looking to the June 12 summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un for guarantees that Pyongyang would be rolling back its nuclear weapons program, it surely must be disappointed, to say the least. Japan is much more likely to be alarmed.

Given the opaque nature of the joint declaration signed by the two following the love fest on Singapore’s resort island Sentosa, it is still uncertain, a week later, what the two nations agreed. But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s latest White House contact was obviously prompted by concerns that the US might be willing to stomach a North Korean sub-regional nuclear capability if Pyongyang is willing to dismantle its long-range nuclear capability – the threat to the US that galvanized US concerns in the first place.

That would leave North Korea with the means to reach Japan with short- and medium-range nuclear missiles at the same time an increasingly bellicose China continues to expand its own nuclear and conventional military capabilities.

The joint declaration merely notes that “Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” without setting any deadline for the process and without specifying what “denuclearisation” means. As many analysts have pointed out, that is exactly what North Korea has been agreeing to for decades.

Abe had to be deeply concerned when he spoke with Trump over the phone after the summit. He noted that “we see this as a step in a comprehensive resolution,” but it seems certain the call was provoked by the way Trump utterly ignored the strategic interests of both South Korea and Japan in his new infatuation with Kim. Abe surely has much to ponder over, given the amount of time and energy he spent, hoping to prevail on Trump to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea with respect to Japan’s key demands –the abduction issue of its nationals and Pyongyang’s complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization.

Japan had a big stake in the talks between the US and the DPRK for a host of reasons. First, last year, North Korea on two occasions conducted missile tests that overflew Japanese territory amid threats by Kim to “sink Japan.” Second, in the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea abducted 17 Japanese nationals. Although five were returned home in 2002, the rest are still believed to be in the North’s custody. North Korea insists that the abductions issue has been “already settled” and that eight of the abductees have already died while four supposedly never entered North Korea.

Tokyo is justifiably worried that it may be given short shrift as Trump strikes up a deal with North Korea. In the run-up to US presidential elections in 2016, Trump called upon Japan to pay more for the US troops stationed there and even hinted that both Japan and South Korea could be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

The joint declaration issued after the Singapore Summit does not mention anything about the abduction issue. In addition, Tokyo has had to stomach the fact that Trump has suspended regular joint exercises with South Korea, which adds to Tokyo’s security worries.

What are Japan’s options

Tokyo is not left with many options. Already there are reports that Prime Minister Abe may be planning to meet the North Korean strongman in a one-to-one summit. Tokyo could dangle economic carrots to Pyongyang, but for that North Korea would first need to resolve the abduction issue, otherwise, it will be politically untenable for Abe.

Second, Japan may take the help of other countries to set up a meeting with the North. In this regard, Russia could be useful. Abe has taken a calibrated stance towards Russia in spite of longstanding territorial disputes with Moscow over the Kuril Islands (known as the Northern Territories in Japan), annexed by Russia at the end of World War II. President Vladimir Putin may help bring PM Abe and the North Korean strongman for a summit, a la Singapore, in September at an economic forum in Vladivostok in mid-September.

Third, Tokyo may also look to China to seek a breakthrough. The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was in Tokyo in early May this year for a landmark trilateral summit between Japan, China, and South Korea. Of late, the relationship between Japan and China seems to be warming, especially as both sides are at a loss on how to deal with Trump. Japan has also signaled its willingness to collaborate with Beijing on the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) on a case-to-case basis. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of a friendship treaty between the two countries.

Fourth, Japan may need to increase its defense budget and undertake the much-debated constitutional reform. In December last year, Tokyo approved a defense budget of JPY5.19 trillion (US$45.7 billion) for the fiscal year 2018 which represented an increase of 1.3 percent from the sum allocated for the previous year.

For Abe, it is a double whammy as he also faces internal Liberal Democratic Party Presidential elections in September this year.

Time to Change Course

It is clear that the security environment around Japan has undergone a dramatic upheaval since North Korea sent its athletes to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea this year. Donald Trump has ensured North Korea is no longer a pariah state, a reality that Tokyo has to contend with.

Japan has to be fleet-footed in its response to the dramatic turn of events on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. Whatever the issues dogging their ties, it is important for Japan to keep its channels open with North Korea. The costs of not doing so may be too difficult for Japan to bear.

Rupakjyoti Borah is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. His latest book is The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India? The views expressed are personal. E-mail: rupakj@gmail.com; Twitter: @rupakj