TOKYO — My reporting from Japan indicates President Donald Trump has managed to piss off both the political right and left.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent many hours kissing butt with Trump, stroking his ego and stressing the similarity of their conservative political views. Then Trump waived aluminum and steel tariffs for Canada, Australia, and the EU — but not Japan.
Then Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, catching Japanese leaders by surprise. Japanese of different political persuasions don’t trust Trump and doubt the talks will bear results.
“They are both unpredictable characters,” Koichi Nakano told me. “But Kim has a method to his madness. Trump is driven by ego.” Nakano is a left-leaning professor of political science and dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
Sue Kim, a reporter with the right-wing South Korean daily Chosun Ilbonewspaper, told me South Koreans and Japanese are worried about Trump’s call for a pre-emptive military attack on Pyongyang. “Trump is sending out confusing messages,” she told me. “That’s the scary part for us. What is the end goal?”
President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un on April 27. Then Trump and Kim are supposed to meet in May or June. Nakano credited President Moon for lessening tensions in the region. Moon was worried that Trump’s aggressive rhetoric might start a war. So Moon invited athletes from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to participate in the Winter Olympics and started a campaign to lower tensions.
“Moon acted boldly, “said Prof. Nakano. “It was quite a diplomatic feat.”
But such diplomatic prowess must continue if Trump and Kim are to actually meet let alone reach an agreement. The United States has sabotaged previous accords, and that was before the DPRK had nuclear weapons.
Back in 1994, the United States signed an agreement that allowed the DPRK to develop nuclear power but not atomic weapons. President Bill Clinton and then President Kim Jong Il, father of the current DPRK leader, made a historic breakthrough that aimed to establish normal diplomatic relations after years of hot and cold war.
The DPRK agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program while western powers agreed to help North Korea construct two light-water nuclear reactors, whose spent fuel couldn’t be used to develop bombs. While waiting for the reactors to be built, the west would provide heavy fuel oil to power the country’s electric grid. The United States pledged to eliminate sanctions and remove the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then both sides would establish diplomatic relations.
The DPRK lived up to its end of the bargain. But hawkish Republicans and Democrats didn’t like what became known as the “Agreed Framework,” claiming it would allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Congress refused to approve the full cost of fuel oil, thus undercutting the agreement and eliminating the possibility of testing DPRK intentions.
The western allies never built the promised reactors, the Clinton administration only lifted some sanctions, and didn’t take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Washington was ready to scuttle the agreement entirely, blaming North Korea for the failure, of course.
In 2002 Bush came up with his cockamamie campaign against the “Axis of Evil,” which included Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea. An orthodox Marxist-Leninist state, a nationalist dictatorship and a theocratic Islamic regime were somehow in cahoots to destroy the United States. The Agreed Framework was buried.
Had Washington carried out the signed agreement, the current U.S.-Korea crisis could have been avoided. Instead, in 2006 the DPRK tested its first nuclear bomb, claiming it had the right to defend itself from outside attack. The United States still has 28,500 troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and navy vessels carrying nuclear missiles cruise nearby.
North Korea’s dictatorial regime has angered ordinary Japanese in a variety of ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, DPRK soldiers kidnapped Japanese citizens and forced them to become language instructors and spies. For years DPRK officials denied the kidnappings. Now they say all the victims have been returned to Japan or have died. Conservative Japanese politicians say some are still missing and use the issue to stir up tensions.
Similarly, last year The DPRK test fired conventional ballistic missiles over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean. While the missiles weren’t aimed at Japan, they nonetheless scared people. Prime Minister Abe won the 2017 parliamentary elections, in part, by playing on fears of a North Korean attack. Abe and other conservatives use concerns about a Korean attack to justify expansion of Japan’s military.
Leftist opponents of Abe say Japan doesn’t need an offensive military. The DPRK threat is exaggerated, according to Nakano. “North Korea is not going to launch a missile attack on Japan,” he said.
The United States faces a similar debate. The Trump administration claims North Korea poses an immediate threat because its missiles may reach the U.S. mainland. In reality DPRK has a limited arsenal of nuclear weapons and is highly unlikely to launch an offensive attack. Any first strike by the DPRK would bring a devastating response by the United States and South Korea, wiping out Pyongyang.
“North Korea is not going to launch a missile and end its regime,” said Nakano. “It sees the missiles as defense against the United States.”
The DPRK leadership sees what happened in other countries, according to Nakano. “If Iraq or Libya had nuclear weapons,” he said, “the United States wouldn’t have attacked.”
Conservative reporter Kim strongly opposes the DPRK regime, but doesn’t think it will act irrationally. “I used to think Kim was a crazy maniac,” she said. “He is controlling, but rational. Above all Kim wants his regime to survive.”
The Trump administration faces some stark choices. The DPRK will not likely give up its nuclear weapons. The best outcome of negotiations would halt expansion of the nuclear program in return for economic aid and normalization of relations with the west. At worst, the talks could fall apart in mutual recriminations and heighten the possibility of war.
The choice is up to Washington.
Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.