The essence of North Korea’s diplomacy is now taking shape. After conducting repeated nuclear and missile tests, North Korea declared the “completion of its nuclear force” following the successful launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM last November. Taking advantage of the PyeongChang Olympic Games, it has shifted to a dialogue policy with the U.S. through the ROK’s mediation. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump is not bothered by the danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, as long as the U.S. is not threatened.
While “denuclearization” is supposed to be the issue, North Korea is seeking guarantees for its political regime from the U.S., and it is certain to demand the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) as a guarantee.
If the withdrawal of the USFK becomes a real possibility as a consequence of progress made in the U.S.-DPRK dialogue, it is very likely that the U.S.’s tendency to be concerned only with its own defense since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 will also come to apply to Japan, resulting in a significant reduction in U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ). Improvement of the U.S.-DPRK relationship will lead directly to a crisis for Japan. This will be a powerful poison that will put the true worth of the Japan-U.S. alliance to the test.
The abduction issue and North Korea’s deployment of hundreds of mid-range Rodong ballistic missiles capable of attacking Japan are not critical issues for the U.S., but they are non-negotiable matters for Japan. Many foreign affairs and defense officials are now concerned that with progress in U.S.-DPRK ties, “the only thing left will be a crisis for Japan.” If the U.S. and North Korea come to an agreement with the latter’s pledge to freeze development of nuclear arms and ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S., Japan’s nightmare will become reality.
Japan has long been troubled by two contradictory fears since the U.S.-Soviet Cold War: first, Japan may be embroiled in the U.S.’s wars due to the USFJ’s presence; and second, the USFJ may withdraw someday. While the media have mostly focused on the former, the second concern persists among officials of the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces even today. With the U.S.-DPRK rapprochement, this has quickly become a serious problem.
A former senior official who defected from North Korea has stated categorically that Kim Jong Un’s ultimate goal is the USFK’s withdrawal. Therefore, North Korea is certain to bring up this subject. The size of the USFK has been reduced from over 40,000 to less than 30,000 as a result of U.S. military realignment that started in the first half of the 2000s. Among the 19,000 U.S. Marines in Okinawa, some 4,000 are slated to be transferred to Guam and 5,000 to Hawaii. Concerns about the U.S. forces’ withdrawal are gradually becoming a reality.
If the U.S.-DPRK talks produce a timetable for USFK withdrawal, a former Defense Ministry official is seriously concerned that “there will certainly be a clamor for further reduction of the USFJ, especially from Okinawa.” At the same time, “there will also be an opinion in the U.S. that U.S. forces should not be stationed in places where they are not welcomed,” says a Foreign Ministry source.
Meanwhile, as North-South reconciliation advances and with the withdrawal of the USFK, the defense line against North Korea, currently the 38th parallel north, will move south to the Tsushima Strait. China’s hegemony will extend to a Korean Peninsula without the U.S. forces resulting from the North-South rapprochement, even if short of actual reunification. Furthermore, hostility toward Japan will be one major factor that will unite the two Koreas. If the U.S. and North Korea come to agree on freezing nuclear and missile development, this will remain a “threat” on the Korean Peninsula.
In other words, Japan will have to face an “anti-Japan nuclear-armed Korean Peninsula” after the withdrawal of the USFK. Additionally, if the USFJ is also slashed drastically, Japan will have to make self-help efforts to fill the gap left behind by the U.S. forces. There is no way Japan can achieve independent defense with an aging population and low fertility, not to say its fiscal difficulties.
There are Japanese government officials who still think that the “U.S. military presence in Japan will not change because of the growing China threat,” according to a Foreign Ministry source. However, President Xi Jinping, who has now gained absolute power, has declared that “the Pacific is big enough for China and the U.S. to coexist. The two countries should strengthen communication and cooperation,” making no attempt to hide China’s intent to divide up the Pacific Ocean. If the U.S. and China indeed reach an agreement on this, the existence of the USFJ will lose its meaning. Progress made in the U.S.-DPRK dialogue may mean the prelude to an era of Japan’s isolation. (Abridged)