The Hanoi Setback and Tokyo’s North Korea Problem

The abrupt halt to talks in Hanoi between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un has intensified criticism of the U.S. president’s diplomacy and its U.S. domestic implications. But there are larger regional ripples as well, and the interests of U.S. allies deserve closer scrutiny. While the failure in Hanoi to reach an agreement was a serious setback for Seoul, Japan’s immediate assessment was not terribly critical.

The initial media response in Tokyo largely reflected the U.S. reaction: was no deal better than a bad one? The answer was largely yes, and there were the inevitable questions about the diplomatic performance of the Trump administration.

The government response was far more measured. Tokyo has always viewed the North Korea problem from a different vantage point. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently advocated that President Trump not give in to relaxing sanctions imposed by the United Nations on North Korea (DPRK) for its nuclear and missile programs. The Japanese government has long worked with others in the United Nations to build a serious sanctions regime, and Abe worked hard to persuade the international community of the importance of unity in this effort.

Therefore, the announcement that the United States was not going compromise on sanctions must have been welcome news. Indeed, Abe, after a brief phone call with President Trump on his way home from Hanoi, announced his support for the president’s decision to end discussions over Pyongyang’s request for sanctions relief.

Yet there are collateral concerns in Tokyo that will need to be considered in any future U.S.-DPRK negotiations. Three issues will shape Japanese thinking about their diplomacy going forward.

First, a negotiated denuclearization seems unlikely in the short term, and this conflicts with Tokyo’s strategic preferences. A bad outcome for Tokyo would be a deal that leaves North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities largely in place, or even worse, acknowledges North Korea’s nuclear status. Here we should expect Japan to continue to admonish the United States and others in the most strenuous terms possible the consequences of a bad deal for U.S. extended deterrence in Asia.

Second, Japan more than any other regional power must be relieved to no longer be on the receiving end of North Korean missile launches. While there was no indication in the run-up to the Hanoi meeting that the United States and North Korea had agreed to diminish or eradicate Pyongyang’s missile production facilities, the freeze on missile and nuclear testing must be welcome in Tokyo. A moratorium on missile testing was central to Japan’s own diplomacy with Kim Jong-un’s father almost two decades ago, and will likely continue to be should Japan-DPRK talks ever begin. But a moratorium on testing does nothing to diminish Pyongyang’s missile arsenal, including not only ICBMs but also medium- and short-range missiles that can threaten Japan.

Finally, the most difficult outcome for Prime Minister Abe from the breakdown in Hanoi may not be about Japan’s security but rather about the accountability of the Kim regime on human rights. The fate of the Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang remains a highly sensitive issue for political leaders in Tokyo, none more so than Prime Minister Abe. Repeatedly, President Trump and others in his cabinet have publicly committed the United States to advocate on behalf of Japanese citizens in North Korea. And yet, the president’s willingness to absolve Kim of responsibility for the death of Otto Warmbier, the American student detained and brutally beaten while in North Korean custody, must have given Tokyo pause.

If the U.S. president is not going to hold Kim responsible for the fate of his own citizens, it is unlikely that he will stand firm on behalf of Japanese. Immediately following the president’s press statement in Hanoi, Prime Minister Abe held a press briefing of his own in which he said that he must now pursue directly Japan’s interests on the abductees with Kim Jong-un.

The failure of talks in Hanoi may not be a complete setback for diplomacy. It is too early to tell how this might evolve. U.S. allies will want to ensure that the Trump administration continues to consult as next steps are considered. No one wants a return to the uncertainty and danger of 2017, to be sure. But equally worrisome in the wake of the Hanoi summit is the possibility that President Trump might lose interest in trying to solve the North Korea problem.

Image Credit: 内閣官房内閣広報室 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The piece was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations and it is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.