North Korea is not just a regional issue. It is also a challenging and pressing issue for allies and partners of United States, from European countries to Japan and South Korea. The stakes for Tokyo and Seoul are obvious, given their proximity to Pyongyang and its nuclear arsenal. But the EU also has a direct interest in the stability of East Asia, if only for economic reasons.
Europe’s “critical engagement” toward North Korea is not only about sanctions, but possible dialogue and potential aid. Sweden hosted North Korea talks ahead of the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And France, a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council with the firmest stance among EU members on North Korea nuclearization, has offered its expertise in the dismantling of North Korea nuclear warheads.
The EU welcomed the Singapore Summit in 2018 and the joint statement issued after the summit with caution. The following withdrawal of Trump from the Iran deal, a major issue for Europe, didn’t increase U.S. credibility in the current nuclear negotiations with North Korea. On the same note, Trump’s erratic attitude toward his traditional partners in Asia and the transatlantic alliance did not help to create the necessary confidence in the future continued strategic engagement of the United States. And Pyongyang is a master in exploiting gaps between Washington and its allies.
At the same time, Trump’s China strategy, mixing trade negotiations with the ambition to see Beijing play a greater role in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by exerting more pressure on Pyongyang, is a risky gambit. It opens the way to increased manuevering space both for China and North Korea, at the expense of U.S. allies’ interests in Asia.
Consequently, viewed from Europe as from Asia, the results of 2018 U.S.-North Korea nuclear diplomacy were disappointing. Kim normalized his international image and obtained a suspension on U.S.-South Korea military exercises in exchange for a freeze on missile and nuclear testing. The preparation for the second Trump-Kim summit did not raise much higher expectations.
The best longer-term outcome for the Hanoi summit would be a clearer roadmap to mutually agreed and verifiable denuclearization. One must prepare, however, for a more modest outcome: a declaration of the end of the Korean War, the promise of a North Korean declaration of its missile and nuclear weapons program elements, continued confidence-building measures, and partial sanctions relief for North Korea. Possible problematic deals for the stability of Northeast Asia and the future of the nonproliferation regime, a major point of emphasis for France, would be a reduction of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula or the possibility for North Korea to keep some of its WMDs in exchange for stopping its nuclear weapons programs and dismantling its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Tokyo also faces hard challenges, including to its foreign strategy craftsmanship. The future of the U.S.-Japan alliance is at stake, if Washington decides for a short-term deal with Pyongyang. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan have been, with France, among the firmest proponents of the complete, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But apart from the nuclear issue, Japan has its own concerns that need to be addressed in order for Tokyo to normalize its relations with North Korea. The issue of medium-range missiles is the first one. A deal taking only into account intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach American territory would increase the risk of decoupling between the United States and Japan concerning the North Korean threat – and potentially other security issues. It would demonstrate that Washington is ready to deal with potential adversaries with no respect for its allies’ most pressing security concerns.
At a different level, related to internal politics and Abe’s personal agenda, the abductees question, still unsolved, is the other most pressing issue. Here, the risk for Japan is increased marginalization if a deal is achieved on the nuclear and missiles issues. For Japan’s partners and allies, this issue, though important, is not vital and Tokyo must prepare for such an outcome.
Moreover, Japan is also confronted with its own contradictions. With the welcomed evolution of Japan’s posture toward a greater security engagement, including in Asia, and the adoption of new defense guidelines, North Korea has been rightly qualified by the defense community in Tokyo as a serious and imminent threat. Others, however, more willing to support any potential deal achieved by the U.S. president, seem to imply that a phased agreement on denuclearization would suffice, and that operational medium-range missiles that can directly threaten Japan’s territory are not a priority. That would be an important evolution from Tokyo’s traditionally firmer posture on these issues, a posture shared by France and a larger part of the strategic community in the United States.
At the same time, tensions between Japan and South Korea offer new potentialities for the North Korean regime and reduce the chance of a separate meeting and negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang to solve the abductees issue. The inter-Korean warming can only contribute to the further marginalization of Japan. This is a real challenge for Tokyo. The current South Korean government has its own agenda on history, as well as on relations with Pyongyang. In spite of past agreements, the latest on the comfort women issue in 2015, historical issues are once again being used to cement of the Korean sense of identity in a divided peninsula, in a context where Seoul also does not want to be marginalized by negotiations involving Pyongyang, Washington, and Beijing. However, Japan and South Korea’s superior strategic interests should come first and a better sense of priorities between different issues should be imposed by the leadership of both countries, whose constituencies often remain too inward looking.
All these are essential elements of a possible deal with North Korea. The outcome will be a litmus test to the resilience of U.S. role as security guarantor in Europe and in Asia without putting in jeopardy useful multilateral frameworks. But the test will also be for the capacity of other regional powers to play a productive role and, ultimately, support the future of strategic stability across both regions.
Valérie Niquet is head of the Asia Department at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique
Marianne Peron-Doise is Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia at IRSEM