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“Seiron” column: Japan should demonstrate its capability for denuclearization

By Ryozo Kato, former ambassador to the U.S.


Japan-U.S. summit a good opportunity


The latest Japan-U.S. summit seems to have gone smoothly.


What we have to remember among other things is that Japan suggested the summit to the U.S. with the possibility of various developments in mind before there were moves for a summit between South and North Korea and between the U.S. and North Korea. The latest Japan-U.S. summit talks turned out to be a good opportunity for Japan to provide information to the U.S. ahead of a South-North Korea summit and a U.S.-North Korea summit. So it was an appropriate decision for Tokyo and Washington to hold the summit on this occasion.


When a bilateral relationship becomes very comprehensive like the one between Japan and the U.S., it is crucial for the leaders to directly and continuously compare and share their bird’s-eye views of issues in political, security, and economic and other areas. It becomes important for Japan all the more because it is dealing with the administration of President Donald Trump.


Needless to say, one of the main points of the latest Japan-U.S. summit was North Korea policy. It is a process with tough negotiations expected ahead. Now there is no point in being impressed by the North’s cunning diplomacy. Also, even though there is information that North Korea has been battered by economic sanctions, policies should not be formulated based on optimism.


When we look at developments since the 1990s, the realization of the North’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) is becoming more and more difficult as time goes by. But we can’t say that it’s impossible to make it happen.


The North wants many things: money (economic cooperation), technology, food and other supplies, and the lifting of the sanctions for obtaining various commodities.


But all the North wants is Washington’s “guarantee of the North regime’s survival,” namely, the “conclusion of a U.S.-North Korea peace treaty.”


For Japan and the U.S., giving a regime guarantee is the final and the most important bargaining chip in achieving Pyongyang’s denuclearization. President Trump’s acceptance of a U.S.-North Korea summit was somewhat unexpected.


To me, accepting a summit itself seems to be already a big concession to the North. But I hope that the danger of the premature use of the final bargaining chip was fully conveyed to the U.S. through the latest Japan-U.S. summit.


Continue sanctions while maintaining military options


Japan and the U.S. have presented a “shopping list” to the North.


If I were to describe the details of the list in a figurative way, each of the “must-haves” for the North is priced. For example, the price of the “final product,” which is a regime guarantee by the U.S., is the North’s “complete denuclearization.” And the price of huge “economic cooperation” from Japan is the settlement of the abduction issue in addition to complete denuclearization.


The most realistic scenario for achieving the North’s complete denuclearization may be continuing strong sanctions on North Korea while maintaining military options without giving up on the final bargaining chip of normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea.


Incidentally, Japan and the U.S. feel sympathy for the North Korean people. In a sense, they are victims who were abducted to an inhumane regime. Previous U.S. presidents share that recognition. I was there when the 43rd U.S. President, George W. Bush, invited Megumi Yokota’s family to the White House. The president also invited a young North Korean male defector and his daughter to join the meeting. Sanctions are directed at the [North’s] regime.


Previously, Japan, the U.S., and South Korea had a shared view on such an approach. But now Seoul seems to be moving away from that view. The reported idea of a peace agreement between South and North Korea can never be enough for the North to replace it with a regime guarantee by the U.S. But we need to pay attention to the idea because it may lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea in the future.


Be sensitive to the danger of failed deterrence


Under such circumstances, it is important for Japan and the U.S. to share a view on the basic policy toward the North. A “freezing of the status quo” and a “new approach” that lacks synchronicity are harmful to both the U.S. and Japan, but particularly to Japan, which is located within the reach of the North’s short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles.


The reason why we have to rigorously respond to North Korea’s nuclear disarmament is not just that we are facing the danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a ruler to whom the logic of [nuclear] deterrence falls flat. Sooner or later, the danger will negatively affect the U.S.’s deterrence in East Asia.


Japan should be more sensitive to the danger. It is only natural that Japan should further strengthen its influence to make a South-North summit and a U.S.-North summit a place for the realization of the North’s complete denuclearization. I believe that the Japanese government has been considering responses to a possible failure by the Trump administration in achieving what Japan had hoped for and a possible failure of a U.S.-North summit. But I wish for the further deepening of national discussions.


If the North’s complete denuclearization does not happen, it will be a serious blow to the system of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The world may move in the opposite direction of Japan’s strong desire for the elimination of nuclear weapons.


Currently, the U.S. wields the most influence over the North for its complete denuclearization. Meanwhile, there is an increase in the number of countries like China and Russia (and South Korea?) that do not emphasize the North’s denuclearization to the extent Japan and the U.S. do. Japan is the U.S.’s strongest partner in this region. I think now is the time to demonstrate Japan’s capability.

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