Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, adjusts his spectacles as he delivers a speech during a special address on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Japan Frets Over ‘Nightmare Scenario’ as Trump Meets Kim Again

(Bloomberg) -- When U.S. President Donald Trump sits down to talk peace with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later this month, one of America’s closest allies -- Japan -- will be looking on with apprehension.

Like the first time Trump met Kim in June, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has found himself on the outside peering in before their second summit set for Feb. 27-28 in Hanoi. The meeting brings both the promise of a less-dangerous North Korea and the potential peril of a weak deal that leaves Japan exposed to Kim’s weapons of mass destruction and does nothing to help ease Tokyo’s own hostility with Pyongyang.

Mitoji Yabunaka, who served as Japan’s envoy to six-party talks with North Korea more than a decade ago, said the country feared “a half-baked, deceptive agreement which leads to the Trump administration taking a soft line on North Korea by removing economic sanctions” without serious progress on disarmament. That would be “the nightmare scenario,” Yabunaka said.

Japan Frets Over ‘Nightmare Scenario’ as Trump Meets Kim Again

While Japan and the U.S. -- which guarantees the country’s security under a 1960 treaty -- both want North Korea to give up its weapons, their interests could diverge as talks progress. Kim’s short- to medium-range rockets pose the most immediate danger to Japan, not the intercontinental ballistic missiles that now threaten the American homeland.

Moreover, Trump’s unilateral decision to grant Kim’s request to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea during their first summit has raised concerns about a potential U.S. pull-back after the second. The presence of some 28,500 American troops on the peninsula provides Japan a valuable buffer against a rising China, as well as North Korea.

“We want the U.S. forces to remain in South Korea for as long as possible,” said Rui Matsukawa, a diplomat-turned lawmaker with Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. “Japan must keep reminding the U.S. of what it needs from the U.S.-North Korea deal.”

‘Sworn Enemy’

North Korea fired two missiles over Japan and tested others that landed in the country’s exclusive economic zone as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang rose in 2017. But Tokyo has been largely shut out of the subsequent thaw, with North Korean state media still churning out screeds denouncing the Japanese as “island barbarians, the sworn enemy of the Korean people,” and other insults.

Meanwhile, Abe’s efforts to build a personal rapport with Trump -- even recommending him for the Nobel Peace Prize, according to the U.S. president -- have shown their limits. Trump has accused Japan of falling short on troop payments, he’s withdrawn from a shared Pacific trade pact and imposed tariffs on the country’s metals exports on “national security” grounds.

Japan was also forced to accept bilateral trade talks with the U.S. after Trump threatened similar tariffs on its vital auto industry. The Commerce Department said Sunday it turned over its report on car imports to Trump, without offering any insights into the findings.

“Our advantage up until now has been the strong personal relationship between the leaders,” said Motohiro Ono, a former parliamentary secretary for defense and lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party For The People. “It doesn’t look as though we can use it now.”

The White House National Security Council declined to comment Friday. The State Department Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

There have been no calls or meetings between Trump and Abe since Nov. 30, according to the Foreign Ministry website. By contrast, they met twice and spoke by phone five times in the three months leading up to the first Trump-Kim summit in June 2018, including calls the day before and the day of the meeting.

Japan plans to invite Trump in May so he can be the first state leader to meet the country’s new emperor, the Sankei newspaper said. The visit will include a golf excursion with Abe, the newspaper said, citing unidentified people familiar with the bilateral relationship.

Abductee Issues

In parliament Monday, Abe praised Trump for acting “decisively toward resolving the issues of the North Korean nuclear and missile problems,” while declining to say whether he nominated the U.S. leader for the Nobel Prize. Earlier this month, Abe told lawmakers that he wanted to speak to Trump before the summit.

“I want to coordinate our policies on the nuclear, missile and -- most important of all for our country -- abduction problems,” Abe said, according to the Sankei.

Japan has long sought U.S. support for the return of a dozen of its citizens believed kidnapped and taken to North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have pledged to help, the issue hasn’t featured prominently in talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

Abe has urged Trump to maintain a hard line on international sanctions against North Korea, including by clamping down on suspected transfers of fuel to its ships at sea, to push for a deal that includes shorter range missiles. Many of North Korea’s shorter range missiles are capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, but experts are not sure what sort of warheads the secretive state can affix to the missiles.

Former chief South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yungwoo -- one of the few people who helped broker a deal that temporarily rolled back North Korea’s nuclear program -- said that Japan and his own country share an interest in making sure the regime gives up all its fissile material.

“Just eliminating intercontinental ballistic missiles could be perceived as a U.S.-first policy at the expense of Japan and the Republic of Korea,” Chun said in an interview. “That would be very bad. Japan has to make sure that denuclearization doesn’t end there.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.