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“Seiron” column: North Korea issue a concern under the Biden administration

By Yoichi Shimada, Fukui Prefectural University professor


The most troubling aspect of the Biden administration is its policy on North Korea. Antony Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, was asked in a Senate hearing on Jan. 19 whether he would consider a “step-by-step” approach to removing sanctions in exchange for a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons (which is exactly what North Korea wants). Instead of answering the question directly, Blinken said he would review the policy in general.


Don’t make another “worst deal”

Former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, appointed as the “Indo-Pacific coordinator,” emphasizes that the U.S. must quickly start negotiations before North Korea takes provocative actions. It would be disastrous for Japan if the “review” and “quick negotiations” were conducted in line with the Iran nuclear agreement concluded under the Obama administration (2015).


The Biden administration’s diplomatic team is led by President Biden, who was vice president under the Obama administration, and includes people who view the Iran nuclear agreement as the “foremost outcome of Obama Era diplomacy”: former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Wendy Sherman, who served as the principle negotiator for the agreement and has been nominated as deputy secretary of state).


What’s wrong with the Iran nuclear agreement? The Trump administration criticized it as the “worst deal” and later withdrew from the agreement. I will clarify the main points.


  1. The agreement only “limits” Iran’s nuclear activity and does not force Iran to abandon or freeze its nuclear weapons (for instance, it allows partial operation of centrifuges). The agreement is a “time-limited agreement” of 10 or 15 years. After this period of time, Iran can freely resume its nuclear activity.


  1. The inspection regulations are lax.


  1. There are no limits on missiles.


  1. The agreement does not force Iran to abandon terrorism.


As a trade-off for “limits” on nuclear activities, the agreement allowed Iran to withdraw funds from frozen assets held in U.S. financial institutions and lifted many economic sanctions. At the time, all Republican senators and four Democratic senators, including then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, opposed the deal. The U.S. withdrawal from the agreement was not just “Trump acting recklessly.”


Is the Democratic Party tough on human rights

Another point to note is that the Obama administration put an abduction incident on the back-burner. Robert Levinson, an external contractor with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, disappeared in Iranian territory in March 2007. Levinson was reportedly collecting information regarding corruption in the Iranian system, and was thought to have been kidnapped by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.


About three years later, Levinson’s family received photographs of Levinson in an orange prison uniform holding a sign that said “help me” and a video in which he said his health was “not good.” It was a malicious pressure tactic.


The Obama administration presented a possible resolution based on fiction that Levinson was abducted near Pakistan by armed military forces, which would have enabled Iran to deny its role in the abduction. No progress was made on the issue and there were no reports thereafter of Levinson’s whereabouts. The Iranian government still denies involvement.


The Obama administration wished to make the Iran nuclear agreement part of its diplomatic legacy and did not want the abduction, which occurred under a previous administration, to be an “obstacle” to negotiations. The administration did not fully pursue the matter.


Then and thereafter, Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio criticized the administration for overlooking the Levinson case. Senator Rubio claimed that the U.S. should demand “the immediate unconditional release” of Levinson, and that the matter not be buried among the overall negotiations. The Democrats were mostly silent on this issue. The Japanese media report that “the Democrats are tougher on human rights issues,” but this is fake news from major U.S. news outlets, who are cheerleaders of the Democratic Party.


Communicate with influential Republicans

Japan must ensure that the U.S. does not engage with North Korea based on the “Iranian model.” It is not sufficient to approach the Biden administration, which takes an appeasement approach, through the normal diplomatic channels. Such an approach may be ineffective.


Japan must continue to communicate with influential Republicans who have strong messaging capabilities to pressure the current administration, such as Former Vice President Mike Pence, whose ideology is clear-cut; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Senators Rubio and Ted Cruz; former U.N. envoy Nikki Haley; and former President Trump, who will maintain his influence within the Republican party.


The only person in Japan who can take such action is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In terms of age, Abe could serve as prime minister again. But no matter what Abe’s actual title is, Republican politicians, now in the opposition and possibly feeling estranged, would surely welcome a request for a meeting with Abe as a special envoy of the prime minister.


Several years ago, Finance Minister Taro Aso said, “There are so very few good people, so we should fully utilize those we have,” in support of Abe’s continuing as prime minister. This comment is very apt.


The Japanese opposition parties and the media are trying to push Abe into a corner over trivial matters such as supplementary costs related to the cherry blossom viewing parties. How foolish they are.


All of Japan’s political circles must make utmost efforts to utilize Abe wisely, as he has distanced himself from political strife, is aligned with U.S. conservatives, and has many personal connections.

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