By Keio University Professor Emeritus Masao Okonogi
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on the total denuclearization of North Korea at their summit meeting. However, this is nothing new. What is more important is that the two countries are prepared to continue to implement thorough sanctions on North Korea over an extended period — that is to say, they are prepared to engage in a “protracted war.” This probably means that a military option is now less likely.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the main player in the first half of Trump’s Asia tour. Applying “maximum pressure” on North Korea can well be said to be a joint Japan-U.S. effort. Trump picked Japan as the first country he visited for the purpose of confirming close joint actions by the two countries.
The ROK, which regards itself as the most important party in this matter, probably asked Trump to visit South Korea first. Its position was that he should hold discussions first with the ROK, whose survival is at stake in a contingency. It was probably irked by Trump’s giving priority to Japan. That is why President Moon Jae-in invited a former comfort woman to his reception for Trump and served shrimp from the Takeshima (called Dokdo in Korean) area. For sure, North Korea must have been delighted by such subtle discord among Japan, the U.S., and the ROK.
North Korea is embarking on brinksmanship diplomacy recently backed by the advancement in its ICBM technology.
This brinksmanship policy has two parts: First, make a deal with Trump to sign a U.S.-DRPK peace agreement over the ROK’s head based on its belief that his might be possible with Trump; and second, complete its development of nuclear missiles capable of attacking the U.S. mainland even if it fails to make a deal. This in itself would be a major achievement.
Will North Korea bow to “maximum pressure” and abandon its nuclear and missile programs? As Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out, “North Korea will not stop developing nuclear arms even if its people have to eat weeds.” The important thing is that it is about to complete its development of nuclear missiles. The North Korean media have also begun talking about the “final phase of completion.” In other words, it does not necessarily have to conduct more experiments. It is believed that North Korea will analyze the outcome of the U.S.-China summit and make a final decision on whether to conduct more ICBM test firing.
It is possible that North Korea may declare unilaterally that it has “completed the building of national nuclear capability” and call for a “simultaneous freeze” on nuclear and missile tests and U.S.-ROK joint exercises before the end of this year. This would mean accepting China’s proposal and would not be a bad deal for the ROK, which is hosting the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February. For sure, Japan and the U.S., advocates of “maximum pressure,” will not ease their sanctions, but as a result of the U.S.-China summit, a crisis situation in which talk of a “preemptive strike” is the focus can probably be avoided. (Slightly abridged)