By Jitsuro Terashima, Japan Research Institute chairman
After his meeting with Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump said he was amenable to reducing the 32,000-strong U.S. Forces Korea in stages.
The weakening of the U.S.’s presence on the Korean Peninsula would be very desirable for China.
According to North Korean media reports, the denuclearization “of the Korean Peninsula” will take place from now on in a “phased, simultaneous” manner. It is noteworthy that denuclearization will not be limited to North Korea but will involve the entire Korean Peninsula.
Kim Jong Un under China’s grip
Since last summer, there had been talk of a possible U.S.-DPRK military conflict, which made a U.S.-led unification of the Korean Peninsula a real possibility. China is averse to the U.S. Forces coming close to its border with the Korean Peninsula.
It was even rumored that to prevent this from happening, China might resort to military intervention (stationing of troops) in North Korea, on the pretext of protecting the DPRK from the U.S.
Why did North Korea approach the ROK, participate in the PyeongChang Olympics, and initiate the process of rapprochement early this year? Because North Korea wanted to free itself from China’s grip.
Kim Jong Un’s suspicion that China was trying to remove him was behind his order to assassinate his elder brother (Kim Jong Nam) and the execution of his uncle Chang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. He attempted to approach the U.S. by moving closer to the ROK’s Moon Jae-in administration, which adopts a conciliatory policy toward the DPRK, in his desire to be free from China’s control.
However, China had the upper hand. Faced with the reality that North Korea would need China’s help in facing off the U.S., Kim had to visit China twice before the U.S.-DPRK summit. He was even forced to borrow aircraft from China to go to Singapore because his country did not have suitable airplanes. The fact is China wields absolute power over the DPRK.
Abduction issue is a “Pandora’s box”
The abduction issue was a major issue for Japan in the U.S.-DPRK talks. Trump had taken up the abductions as a “human rights issue” last year. While the abductions are indeed an outrageous violation of human rights, human rights issues are very complicated.
Japan paid a total of 4 trillion yen at current values when it reconciled with the ROK in 1965, but it has not settled this issue with North Korea.
Trump has mentioned that “Japan and the ROK will pay” for the cost of denuclearization. Trump likes deal-making and he will take advantage of others’ weaknesses. Regardless of what the truth is, Japan does appear to have a “guilty conscience” with regard to the forced labor and comfort women issues during its colonial rule.
If North Korea comes to demand postwar reparation from Japan on a scale comparable to what the ROK received after the end of the Korean War is declared, this will open a “Pandora’s box.” “Anti-Japan” could become the shared common value of the reconciled North and South Korea and they might form a united front to demand compensation from Japan over human rights issues.
Japan’s vision for the future of East Asia will now be put to the test. The denuclearization of East Asia, including North Korea, could be regarded as a litmus test.
However, Japan is not standing at the forefront in advocating denuclearization. It has not signed the UN’s Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, which is seen as perplexing, at least among the East Asian countries.
With China boosting its presence in East Asia, there are actually high expectations for Japan because China’s increasing high-handedness and growing power is unwelcome in East Asia. (Abridged)