The recent announcement of a possible meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-Un has caused optimism among the international society that wants to see this nuclear crisis solved. Despite the unpredictable behaviour of both leaders, a face-to-face conversation is expected to have a better outcome than a set of incendiary tweets and threats.
With the development of ICBM capable of carrying nuclear payloads, North Korea gained bargaining power. During the last crisis with Pyongyang, Washington’s biggest concerns were first, to stop the nuclear program and second, to avoid a war where its allies could be affected. However, in the current situation where U.S. mainland could now be directly affected by North Korean nuclear weapons, apart from the previous two concerns, Washington now has to focus on the protection of its continental land and its main cities, which is, undoubtedly, a top priority. In this scenario, Tokyo fears that the U.S. will reach an agreement driven by the protection of its mainland while ignoring the risks of its allies in the region.
Even though this U.S. administration has reassured its compromise with its allies on this issue, the pragmatism and changing-mind of Donald Trump could lead to a different outcome after a meeting with the North Korean leader. In a speech to the United Nations in September 2017, Trump stated that “…the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself and its allies we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Additionally, as the North Korean nuclear program has strengthened, Washington has got more involved in the region. Nevertheless, Tokyo still remembers that during the presidential campaign, Trump suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons to stop depending on U.S. defence, or pay for the ´service.’ Although Trump has maintained the speech of reducing international defence ‘free riders,’ Washington has demonstrated its commitment to Japan and South Korea in the Peninsula Issue, and has more than once reassured the nuclear umbrella to both of its allies.
It is clear that the regimen in North Korea considers the nuclear program vital for its survival, and it is unlikely that Pyongyang renounces to the whole program. The collapse of the USSR and the whole Soviet bloc left Pyongyang without any support for its regime in the international order. China, which has acted as the main ally, and in some cases protector, is now more concerned about maintaining the conditions that have permitted its rise as a regional hegemon, which include the stability of North East Asia, rather than challenging the U.S. in favour of a small ally like Pyongyang or, allowing the rise of tension, or a war that could lead to an even major involvement of the U.S. and Western Power in the area. With no major allies, the regime believes that the bomb is the only guarantee to avoid the path that Hussein, or Gadhafi, was forced to take when deciding to challenge the West.
The Japanese fear is summarized by the risk of being bypassed by the U.S. in a negotiation with North Korea, and the consequent abandonment from Washington. Historically, North Korea has demanded the denuclearization of the Peninsula as a condition sine qua non, to dismantle its nuclear program. As South Korea does not possess the bomb, the only way to denuclearize the Peninsula is to remove the U.S. nuclear umbrella from its ally in Seoul. The North Korean nuclear capability has never been bigger, and this could be the opportunity to increase its demands in a direct talk with the United States. Pyongyang can now offer to stop the nuclear ICBM program, removing U.S. mainland from the missile range, in exchange for the denuclearization of South Korea and Japan, or the retrenchment of the U.S. in the region. If Tokyo is bypassed in the negotiations between North Korea and the U.S., as could happen in the Trump-Kim Jong-Un meeting, the consequence could be the abandonment of Tokyo by its stronger ally and the destruction of its defence policy bedrock.
This would be the worst-case scenario for Japan and is highly unlikely. However, Abe is aware of this risk, as well as others in the region, like the rise of China. Thus, the Japanese leader has pursued a reform of the Self Defence Force and the debate about the limits and boundaries of the constitution in terms of defence and war. Even though the abandonment of Japan by the U.S. is highly unlikely today, a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-Un could provide some unexpected outcomes and more questions than answers. The first question would be is this meeting even going to take place?
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