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U.S. North Korea policy focuses on China deterrence: Watanabe Tsuneo

Interviewed by Onuki Tomoko


Watanabe Tsuneo was born in 1963 and holds a masters from the New School University. He was a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies before joining the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. He is the author of “World Order beyond 2021” and other books. Watanabe has a wide circle of contacts in the U.S., China, Taiwan, and South Korea.


Three years ago, the U.S.-North Korea summit meeting was held with great fanfare. Now, expectations for the North Korean denuclearization are rapidly dwindling. As a veteran politician with extensive diplomatic experience, what kind of approach will U.S. President Joe Biden take toward the DPRK? The Mainichi Shimbun asked Watanabe Tsuneo, a senior fellow who specializes in U.S. security policy at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.


The Mainichi Shimbun: In April, the Biden administration finished its review of U.S. policy on North Korea and announced it will take a “realist approach.” What does it entail?


Watanabe: The Biden administration upholds the joint statement signed by the previous administration to keep the door to dialogue open. However, the current administration will not pursue a lumpsum agreement between the leaders as the Trump administration did. I believe the U.S. is saying that it’s open to dialogue as long as North Korea understands this point.


The Biden administration’s intention to maintain some aspects of the Trump administration’s policy was made clear by the appointment of Sung Kim as the special representative to North Korea. The problem with the former administration’s North Korea policy was that it didn’t examine and verify the contents of the agreement. Kim’s appointment sends a message to North Korea that there is a chance for dialogue, while reinforcing the point that the North needs to take concrete steps toward denuclearization, which it promised in the joint statement. It was a skillful move.


Mainichi: Biden announced Kim’s appointment during a press conference after the U.S.-South Korea summit meeting on May 21. What was his intention?


Watanabe: Kim was involved in formulating the U.S.-North Korea joint statement and well-versed in North Korean affairs. The Biden administration knew Kim’s appointment would be welcomed by South Korea; it is strategically important for the U.S. to involve South Korea in Indo-Pacific affairs and prevent it from leaning toward China. The U.S. aim was apparent in the U.S.-South Korea joint statement that stipulated the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. What really worries the U.S. is China, not North Korea. It looks to me that the U.S. is not in a hurry to realize dialogue with North Korea, so long as South Korea, which is close to China, is kept with the U.S. and Japan  in the camp that counters China.  


The same is true with Japan. I believe that by strengthening trilateral coordination, the U.S. hopes to not only exert pressure on North Korea, but also deter China. As the U.S. places great importance on Japan and South Korea, the Biden administration is unlikely to conclude an agreement with North Korea that undermines Japan.


Mainichi: China led and coordinated six-party talks in the 2000s.


Watanabe: In the past, dialogue with North Koreas, such as the Six Party Talks, had been held in an environment without the U.S. and China in conflict. In the present environment, the Biden administration seems to have determined that China won’t be a U.S. partner and China’s mediation won’t be effective.


The biggest weakness in U.S. policy toward North Korea stems from the fact that the U.S. president and top officials change at least every eight years. Biden is the first president who has been close to North Korea issues since the 1980s. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he experienced the nuclear crisis in the 1990s and saw the failure of the Six Party Talks. Toward the end of the Six Party Talks, the U.S. administration under President George W. Bush lifted North Korea’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, despite the fact the country had failed to satisfy requirements of submitting its nuclear plans. Biden saw that mistake, too.


In reality, there is no other means than to proceed with the principle of “action for action” with North Korea. It could be the only way forward, provided that it is based on concrete evaluation and verification, and without easy compromise.


Mainichi: How should Japan prepare?


Watanabe: I believe Japan should consider possessing the capability to attack enemy bases, so that we don’t need to rethink our position every time the U.S. and South Korea shift their stances on North Korea. Considering the rapid development of North Korean missile and nuclear capacities, Japan’s missile defense is not sufficient. So far, Japan’s acquiring a counterattack capability has been taboo, but that capability will increase our diplomatic options.

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