Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has opened his talks with U.S. President Donald Trump in Florida. This is a very important moment for Japan to communicate its interests regarding North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs ahead of Trump’s upcoming summit with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un, expected to be held by early June.
The Abe-Trump talks will last two days. It is unclear exactly what they are discussing, but after the first day the leaders confirmed they would seek a complete and verifiable end to both Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Previously, the primary goal of the United States and other members of the international community had been the denuclearization of North Korea. This objective seems to have been expanded to include an end to the North’s ballistic missiles, and if that is indeed the case then Japanese interests are certainly involved.
The threat presented by a nuclear warhead shifts depending on the range of the missile carrying it. Japan is within range of North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles, but those models cannot reach the mainland United States. What can threaten the U.S. are intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
That being the case, some Japanese observers have warned that Washington may prioritize abolishment of the North’s ICBMs, as they present a direct threat to the U.S. Prime Minister Abe said in Florida that he wanted to “build a shared understanding (with President Trump) toward the scrapping of (the North’s) nuclear arms and missiles.” The comment suggested that he had called for this to be a basic prerequisite for any deal with Pyongyang.
However, concerns remain.
One is whether North Korea has the technology to dispose of large numbers of missiles. The North is thought to have over 1,000 missiles in its arsenal capable of hitting Japan — missiles it will take an enormous amount of work to disassemble.
Another is the question of Washington’s true intentions. CIA Director and likely soon-to-be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Congressional hearing last week that the purpose of the U.S.-North Korea talks was for the Pyongyang leadership to abandon its attempt to endanger the United States. In other words, it appeared that Pompeo’s attention was fixed on the North’s ICBMs, and not the shorter-range weapons that cannot reach the U.S. mainland.
U.S. newspapers have reported that Pompeo recently made a secret trip to Pyongyang to speak with Kim, likely to lay the groundwork for the latter’s coming talks with Trump. Prime Minister Abe needs to get the U.S. president to tell him what was discussed.
Meanwhile, Trump has promised Abe that he will address the North’s abductions of Japanese citizens when he talks to Kim. The abductions are a major human rights issue, and how Trump deals with this will be a litmus test of the Japan-U.S. alliance.