Trans-Pacific View

Japan’s Stakes in US-North Korea Talks

Insights from Naoko Aoki.

Japan’s Stakes in US-North Korea Talks
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Naoko Aoki – Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the RAND Corporation and formerly with Kyodo News, Japan’s largest new agency  – is the 174th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain Tokyo’s strategic calculus in U.S.-North Korea negotiations.

Japan has two policy goals regarding North Korea. One is to solve the nuclear and missile threat North Korea poses to Japan and the other is to settle a bilateral dispute over Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. The second problem has a deeply emotional aspect in Japan, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly called it a policy priority.

Progress on the kidnapping issue is unlikely to be made without progress on the nuclear and missile problem. This is because Japan’s biggest leverage over North Korea is its ability to offer economic cooperation. Japan said in a declaration after a summit meeting with North Korea in 2002 that such cooperation will take place after the two countries normalize ties, which means after both problems are solved. Japan considers the declaration still valid. On a more practical level, major economic cooperation can only happen after international sanctions are lifted, which would not take place until progress is made on the nuclear and missile front.

Define Japan’s threat perceptions in its neighborhood.

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For Japan, North Korea is an immediate threat. North Korea has test-fired numerous ballistic missiles, some of which flew over Japan. Japan assumes that North Korea has the ability to make their nuclear weapons small enough to fit on its ballistic missiles. Japan has been living under this threat for a while and it is making its own defense efforts to try to counter it.

But China looms large in Japanese minds, too, as perhaps as a longer-term and bigger threat. Japan’s most recent National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) issued in December 2018, which looks at Japan’s defense needs over the next 10 years, shows that Japan is concerned about the shifting power balance, including the expansion of China’s military power. While Japan has improved its relations with China since last year, it is keenly aware of the possible security challenges ahead.

Russia is also a concern for Japan, although not to the same degree.

What would be favorable outcomes for Japan at the upcoming second U.S.-North Korea summit?   

It is perhaps useful to talk about what elements would make the second U.S.-North Korea summit an unfavorable one for Japan. If there is to be an agreement on a step-by-step process for North Korea’s denuclearization, which I think is the only realistic way to make progress, the question would become, what would be prioritized?

If the United States prioritizes, for example, the dismantlement of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program over other factors because those missiles directly threaten the U.S. mainland, that would be problematic for Japan. This is because shorter-range North Korean missiles will continue to threaten Japan. This would be even more problematic for Japan if nothing is done about the nuclear warheads that North Korea already possesses.

There are many possible scenarios, but the ICBM program is one important element.

Assess Tokyo’s strategic position toward China’s North Korea policy.

China and Japan have different policy priorities and approaches toward North Korea. My study on the history of the countries’ actions since the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s shows that China prioritized stability above all else and preferred to use positive inducements in dealing with North Korea. China sometimes chose to use coercion when North Korea posed more than a regional threat, but Beijing went back to relying on positive inducements once tensions were down.

In contrast, Japan has two policy goals as I mentioned above. As the kidnapping issue gained importance in policy priority, Japan relied more on negative inducements to deal with North Korea.

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A major challenge in dealing with North Korea is to have the countries that have a stake in the matter coordinate their actions so that policies could have their intended impact. This has not always been successful.

Identify top challenges and opportunities for the Abe administration in the context of North Korea’s path toward denuclearization.

Of the five countries that have major stakes in the developments on the Korean Peninsula – the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea – Japan is the only country that has not had substantive diplomatic engagement with North Korea since Pyongyang began its diplomatic initiative in early 2018. While the Japanese foreign minister met with his North Korean counterpart in New York in September 2018 and also briefly made contact with him in Singapore a month before that, those encounters appear to not have produced a breakthrough in trying to get bilateral talks back on track. Judging from North Korea’s tone on Japan in its official press, Pyongyang does not appear ready to engage with Tokyo. Whether that changes with the second U.S.-North Korea summit remains to be seen.