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Opinion

North Korea talks deepen Japan's dilemma

While Trump and Kim warm up ties, Tokyo is left in the cold

| Japan
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump at their joint news conference at the White House in Washington on June 7   © Reuters

Japan was clearly marginalized in the run-up to and during the June 12 summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in Singapore. The dynamics suggest that Tokyo will not play any significant role in the follow-up negotiations.

There is no way to obfuscate these hard facts with any political or diplomatic sleight of hand. President Donald Trump promised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japanese interests in the region would not be ignored. Such interests were possibly mentioned in the Trump-Kim dialogue. But if so, with what degree of priority or weight?

Regardless, Japan should not just wring its hands in futile despair. Instead, Tokyo should use the momentum and debate generated by the Trump-Kim talks as an opportunity to build a new national consensus on some fundamental questions

The long-running national angst over North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals is of great political and emotional importance in Japan. But it is of no consequence to the U.S. Trump has generally dismissed human rights concerns that have dogged North Korea's regime. American security appears to be his sole focus.

Nor are Japanese abductees of concern to any other country. Even South Korea, which also has abductees being held in North Korea, is uninterested.

It is politically impossible for Japan to entirely give up on the abductees. But the issue should not be allowed to dominate Japanese strategic calculations. East Asia is on the cusp of a major strategic shift. There is no room for political sentimentality.

At present, Japan does not figure highly in North Korean calculations. Pyongyang clearly believes that if it can deal directly with the U.S. and South Korea, Japan will have no choice but to follow or be isolated.

Indeed, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met with Trump, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has dispatched Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's official head of state, to Moscow.

Tokyo's immediate priority should be to secure a meeting between Abe and Kim. The latter is reported to be willing to meet Abe.

If such a meeting comes about -- which is not to be taken for granted -- giving too much prominence to abductees will only hand the initiative to Kim. Abe will be reduced to the position of supplicant: asking for a favor and promising aid if the favor is granted.

Aid to North Korea will not give Japan leverage. South Korea under Moon is eager to promote economic ties with the North, as was clear in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration's endorsement of North-South declarations adopted in 2000 and 2007. The latter spells out North-South economic cooperation in detail. In any case, if the U.S.-North Korean talks progress, Japan may be compelled to provide aid to the North.

After the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, North Korea has been recognized as a de facto nuclear weapon state and a legitimate interlocutor of the U.S. At present, Japan has no real option but to rely on American leave and favor.

This is not a sustainable position for a major country. Tokyo's longer-term order of business should be to broaden its options within the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

This would not require any loosening of the alliance, which would be a disaster, not just for Japan but for all of East Asia. In regional eyes, the fundamental and irreplaceable purpose of the U.S.-Japan alliance is to anchor the U.S. in East Asia. No other U.S. alliance can perform this function.

Broadening options within the alliance will require a level of leadership, creativity and agility that has up to now been absent from Japanese diplomacy. It means moving away from dependency to a genuine partnership.

Abe has already taken significant steps in this direction. More needs to be done. In this effort, his drive to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan's Constitution to place the legal status of the Self-Defense Force on a clearer footing, while desirable, is only a distraction from the core issue.

More fundamentally, Japan needs a new consensus on the meaning of Japanese nationalism in the 21st century. This requires a national debate on issues that most Japanese do not even want to think about.

Denial is a luxury Japan can no longer afford. The choices are not between defining Japanese interests almost solely in terms of American interests, or the militaristic nationalism of the early Showa era of the early 20th century.

As long as Japan refuses to confront history squarely, the country's extreme right will be able to occupy political space by default. This constrains Japanese strategic thinking and keeps Tokyo's diplomatic initiatives hostage to China and South Korea.

A second fundamental issue is whether Trump's "America First" attitude is an aberration that will pass with a new administration; or an extreme symptom of a new national mood that may subside somewhat but will persist over the long term. Wishful thinking is another luxury Japan can no longer afford.

Follow-up negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea are not going to be about complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as initially expected. That may be discussed, but the talks will really be about arms control. That is not the same thing. The focal point of future discussions will be how to maintain deterrence at lower levels of tension and less risk of miscalculation.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that America's main concern is to deal with Pyongyang's long-range missiles that can directly threaten the U.S. mainland. That leaves Japan vulnerable.

Of course, Japan is already vulnerable to medium-range North Korean missiles. But if the U.S. reaches agreement on long-range missiles, it will not be a return to the status quo ante.

If the U.S. is not directly threatened by a North Korea that is now recognized as a de facto nuclear weapon state, the credibility of American extended deterrence will inevitably be questioned. In extreme circumstances, would San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo?

The U.S. would undoubtedly try to reassure Japan that it will. If the Japanese people believe American reassurances only because they have no other option except to believe, that is only a form of self-delusion.

The credibility of U.S. extended deterrence over Japan will in any case be questioned by Pyongyang and, more importantly, by Beijing when China acquires a credible second-strike capability. Can a nuclear weapon state be deterred by conventional means?

Even the U.S. does not seem to think so. The 30-year old U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement is unique in allowing Japan to reprocess nuclear material, a privilege the U.S. has granted to no other country. Why?

What is at stake is existential. For centuries, a central element of Japanese and Korean national identity has been refusal to accept permanent subordination in the Chinese regional order, in Japan's case at least since the 16th century when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having unified Japan, invaded Korea in defiance of that order.

Subordination also must mean an inexorable loosening of, and an eventual end to, the U.S.-Japan alliance. But a five-way nuclear balance in East Asia between the U.S., China, Japan, and the two Koreas would establish a stable multipolar regional order that preserves maneuver space for everyone.

South Korea and even Australia have already been openly debating their own nuclear capability in their respective alliances with the U.S. It is time for such a debate in Japan.

For Japan -- the only nation that has suffered a nuclear attack -- it will be a wrenchingly painful debate. But it cannot be avoided for much longer. The choice is Japan's alone. But the outcome will determine the future of East Asia.

Bilahari Kausikan is a former permanent secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current chairman of the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore. These are his personal views.

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