Hanoi Summit Has Tokyo Feeling Left Out

Japan worries its interests will be ignored in deal between U.S. and North Korea.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk at the White House in Washington on June 7, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk at the White House in Washington on June 7, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared he was ready to “break the shell of mutual distrust” with North Korea and have his own summit with its leader, Kim Jong Un.

But since then, amid the frenzied pace of summitry—the United States and North Korea, South Korea and North Korea, China and North Korea—Japan is still looking on from the sidelines, wary that U.S. President Donald Trump might strike a deal without consulting Tokyo.

That Abe, long a hard-liner on North Korea, hasn’t clinched his own summit with Pyongyang reflects the precarious position Japan finds itself in as Trump prepares this week for his second meeting with Kim, experts and officials say.

“In Japan, rather than hoping for something good to happen, people are hoping for something bad not to happen,” said one Japanese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

At their summit in Vietnam, Trump and Kim will discuss potential North Korean concessions on nuclear disarmament. Allies quietly fear that Kim could outmaneuver Trump in his drive to secure a political and PR victory (and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly shares those fears). The main concern is that Pyongyang could yet again wrangle its way out of real steps to denuclearize—an issue that has vexed top U.S. diplomats in decades past. Top U.S. intelligence chiefs say North Korea is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear program, and working-level negotiations since Trump and Kim’s first summit last year in Singapore sputtered and stalled.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in has forged an unusually close relationship with Kim in his bid to repair ties between the two countries, holding bilateral meetings that often end with photo-ops of the two leaders hugging and smiling.

Japan, meanwhile, must channel its top-level engagement with North Korea through either Seoul or Washington, as Pyongyang has yet to respond to Tokyo’s diplomatic overtures. This often leaves Abe caught between the mercurial North Korean strongman and the brash, free-wheeling U.S. president, who has a penchant for going off script and spurning the advice of his top advisors.

Some experts stress that Japan is in a strong diplomatic position, given Abe’s personal relationship with Trump and despite North Korea’s refusal to engage with him. But Abe is still forced to watch Hanoi from the sidelines.

“In talking with Japanese officials, they do feel concerned. They do feel isolated,” said Bruce Klingner, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA deputy division chief for Korea. And when it comes to the U.S. president, Klingner said, “they’re wary of surprises.”

Trump has given them a reason to worry.

After his first summit with Kim, in 2018, the president unilaterally announced he would end some joint military exercises with South Korea, jolting allies and even some in his own Defense Department.

In December 2018, Trump surprised U.S. allies again by announcing he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and many forces from Afghanistan. The decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria (which is now being reconsidered) prompted Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, and his top counter-Islamic State envoy, Brett McGurk, to resign.

The surprise announcements on Syria and Afghanistan reverberated throughout East Asia and rattled the nerves of U.S. allies, according to Jung Pak, the chair in Korea studies at the Brookings Institution. What’s left for U.S. allies in the region, she said, is “a tangled web of insecurities, hedging, of frustrations that I think emanate in part from President Trump’s unpredictability.”

Japan remains heavily reliant on its alliance with the United States given China’s rising military threat and North Korea’s stubborn development of nuclear and missile programs. Japan’s pacifist constitution, created after World War II, restricts military use to purely defensive actions, though Abe’s government is pushing to reform the constitution and transform Japan’s Self-Defense Forces into a full-service military.

All that leaves Japan particularly susceptible to the whims of president who has spurned traditional alliance structures and questioned longstanding U.S. global commitments.

There’s a prevalent fear in Tokyo that Trump could strike a deal with Kim that wards off a threat to the United States while leaving regional allies in the lurch, according to Hiroyuki Akita, a commentator for the Japanese news outlet Nikkei. This hypothetical deal could include limits on North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles but stop short of achieving denuclearization and addressing short- and medium-range missiles that threaten Japan but not the U.S. mainland. “That is a nightmare scenario for Japan,” Akita said.

Depending on what deal comes out of Hanoi, Japan’s precarious situation could become starker, said Naoko Aoki, a fellow at the Rand Corp. As one potential outcome from the Trump-Kim summit, U.S. negotiators have floated setting up a liaison office in North Korea in a step toward normalizing diplomatic relations—though the office would fall well short of a full-fledged embassy. Other major players in the region, including Russia and China, have embassies in Pyongyang, while South Korea established its own liaison office with North Korea last September.

“That would mean Japan would be the only major country [in the region] without a presence or diplomatic channel that could be used between the two countries,” Aoki said.

Japan has reached out to North Korea several times, according to Japanese officials and experts. That includes contacts at the sidelines of the 2018 U.N. General Assembly, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s meeting with North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in August 2018, and reported talks between their respective intelligence agencies.

But those talks do not appear to have led to “anything of substance,” Aoki said.

Some experts push back on the notion that Japan is isolated going into the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, including Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations. She cited recent trips both Trump and Pompeo have made to Tokyo and phone conversations with their Japanese counterparts to coordinate on North Korea negotiations.

“We are always on the same page [with the U.S.] about the question of denuclearization,” insisted another senior Japanese official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

After North Korea fired test missiles over Japan in 2017, Abe’s government worked effectively to marshal an international response, including at the United Nations, Smith said. “Japan remains very active on the global stage.”

But it’s unclear whether Trump and Abe’s personal rapport will factor into Trump’s negotiations in Hanoi. “I’m not so sure of the extent [Abe’s] personal relationship will be effective enough to prevent Mr. Trump from making an unfavorable deal for Japan,Akita said.

Abe has insisted any direct meeting with Kim would have to address Japanese citizens who North Korea abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Officially, North Korea recognized it abducted 17 Japanese nationals, though the actual number is unclear. It remains one of the most politically important and emotionally fraught foreign-policy issues for Japan. The last major breakthrough on the issue was in 2002, when North Korea admitted to the abductions and released five abductees, though the fate of the remaining 12 remains uncertain–including whether they are still alive. But any breakthrough on this could open economic development from Japan, sorely needed in North Korea.

Abe, now the fourth-longest-ruling prime minister in Japan’s history, has championed the abductee issue throughout his political career. He has made clear he wants to resolve the issue once and for all to clinch his foreign-policy legacy. But Japanese officials quietly concede that can’t be done through intermediaries in Washington or Seoul.

Sue Mi Terry, an expert on the region with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in North Korea’s eyes, the abduction issue has taken a backseat to rapprochement with Seoul and Washington. “I’m sure that’s where we’re headed. That’s just not a priority for Kim right now,” she said.

Smith said any meeting between Abe and Kim would have to address these substantive issues.

“It can’t just be a summit and a photo-op.”

Reporting was conducted with a fellowship program to Japan organized by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer