Japan, North Korea, and the Trump Shock

Donald Trump

Keeping Japan out of the loop as the United States engages with North Korea risks a deep and unpredictable impact on domestic and alliance politics.

CC Image by Gage Skidmore

The announcement on March 9th that President Donald Trump would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could have been tailor-made as a bombshell for Japan’s news cycle and its diplomatic strategies. Flashing across screens at around 9.30am local time, the invitation from Kim to Trump – conveyed by a senior South Korean diplomat visiting the White House – interrupted an otherwise unremarkable morning for the nation’s news broadcasts. Confirmation a few minutes later by a senior aide within the White House, who added that Trump accepted the offer and hoped to meet Kim within the next two months, ensured that the news usurped all other headlines by the end of the day.

Japan’s government, like its media, seemed largely unprepared for the news that a sitting President of the United States would meet with the leader of North Korea for the first time. There was little warning from the President himself, who according to an ABC news anchor, “just walked [into the White House Press Briefing Room] and announced that he will announce very big news about North Korea at 19:00 EST”1ABC News, March 19 2018. Prime Minister Abe’s staff arranged a call with the White House in the early morning, and according to the Prime Minister’s official daily records, the two leaders talked on the phone for 30 minutes from 8:50–9:20 Japan Time. At 11:00am JST, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Abe will visit the United States in April2Official Kantei Website, March 19 2018, 「トランプ米国大統領と電話会談についての会見.

There is a sense of déjà vu about Abe making pilgrimage to the United States in hopes of swaying Trump’s decision-making in Japan’s favour. In November 2016, the Prime Minister met with then President-Elect Trump in New York in hopes of changing his mind on the TPP, the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and the future of U.S.-Japan trade relations. In April 2017 he met with President Trump again, this time in Mar-a-Lago, where the drama over North Korea’s missile tests gained momentum as the DPRK staged one of its most significant tests to that point. Abe’s U.S. missions were not uniformly successful – Trump did pull the U.S. out of TPP, as he had threatened – but he seemed to have built a rapport with the new President which kept Japan somewhat out of Trump’s firing line on questions of trade and security.

President Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972 shattered diplomatic normality for Japan

The announcement of the Trump – Kim summit, seemingly agreed to without Japan being consulted or notified, has not only raised questions over the extent of that rapport – it has created deep unease within Nagatacho about the possibility of another “Nixon Shock”. President Nixon’s famous visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 shattered diplomatic normality for Japan. The Prime Minister at the time, Eisaku Sato, had been deeply committed to Japan’s alliance with the United States; he resigned only months after Nixon’s announcement. Now, as then, Japan has been caught off-guard by the speed at which the leaders from the United States and North Korea are making their plans. Though we should be wary of over-emphasising the comparisons – Trump is not Nixon and Kim is not Mao – the historical background serves as a reminder of the enormous diplomatic and domestic repercussions which Japan can face as a consequence of unexpected or erratic behaviour from the United States.

For such unexpected behaviour to involve North Korea only deepens the sense of crisis for Japan, whose relationship with the “hermit kingdom” is mired in a series of historical and current grievances. Prime Minister Abe visited North Korea himself in 2005 as chief cabinet secretary to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and met with Kim Jong Il, father of North Korea’s current leader, to discuss the “abductees issue”. Resolution of this issue – involving 17 Japanese citizens abducted from coastal areas between 1977 and 1983 – is a core policy of the Abe administration, to the extent that Abe created a cabinet-level ministerial position tasked specifically with handling the abduction issue during his first tenure as Prime Minister in 2007. The issue of North Korean missile tests, meanwhile, was a major focus for the LDP during the 2017 Japanese snap elections and is a significant factor in defence spending deliberations. Events such as North Korean “ghost ships” washing up on Japanese shores and reports of thefts on Japan’s west coast by North Korean fishermen only serve to further complicate Japan’s stance on the DPRK and the Kim regime.

The emotive and politically charged nature of issues surrounding North Korea in Japan – especially the abduction issue – makes it especially sensitive to any signal that other regional players are overlooking or ignoring Japanese concerns. U.S.-Japan security arrangements are robust but the bilateral relationship can be exposed to significant dilemmas if the institutionalized system is disrupted; and there are three profound reasons to make the case for a brewing Trump Shock over North Korea.

Presenting North Korea as a tangible foe has given political cover for defence spending increases

To begin with, defense matters are something of a taboo in Japanese politics – increasing defense spending past the threshold of 1 percent of gross national product is a recipe for heated public protests and political backlash. Therefore, placing the U.S.-Japan security relationship in the context of a tangible foe such as North Korea makes sense for career politicians who don’t want to appear too hawkish for their own electorate while maintaining party unity on defence policy.

The drawback to having identified such a tangible foe become clear, however, when the larger ally begins talks with “the enemy”; the same political cover that Japanese politicians used to buttress the defense alliance can suddenly turn toxic. Opposition parties and critics of the government are given powerful new lines of attack; accusing the ruling party of failing to deliver or failing to effectively manage the U.S alliance, or even, as in the case of the proposed Kim-Trump visit, openly questioning the legitimacy of ruling party policies. This political backlash can serve to exacerbate the real issues at hand; even if Abe and his diplomats can avoid Japan being bypassed entirely, the optics are terrible, domestically, and may have heavy repercussions.

A second factor is the major difference between political institutions in Japan and the United States, with Japanese politics being notoriously centred in long-lasting institutions. While in the United States policies and the senior figures responsible for their implementation often change on four- to eight-year intervals, career politicians and bureaucrats in Japan generally far outlast their U.S. counterparts, particularly the politically-appointed alliance managers. While Japanese appointees have a vested interest in maintaining a close relationship with their U.S. counterparts, high-level politics playing out in the U.S. executive branch often keep the efforts of Japanese at bay – or simply hit the reset button on a regular basis. In the current administration, the executive branch does not trust its experienced Asia hands enough to serve in politically-appointed posts, creating a severe lack of expertise and informed advice on the region which has been a blow to the stability of U.S.-Japan relations, and likely played a major role in effectively keeping Japan out of the information loop in the most recent diplomatic scramble.

Scandal has damaged Abe’s credibility at home, which undermines his position in overseas summits

A final factor is Japan’s often time-consuming inflexibility in crisis-management. Although Prime Minister Abe has won praise for his flexibility in adjusting to events during the Trump presidency, even Abe cannot handle the pace of new developments in the executive branch at present. Playing the role of a crisis-manager abroad also requires political support at home – something which is becoming a rare commodity for Abe at the moment. Recent scandals have severely damaged the Prime Minister’s credibility at home, and hence undermined his capacity to deliver credible Japanese positions and commitments in overseas summits. It remains unclear whether or Japan will join one of the upcoming summit meetings, or attempt to hold its own summit meeting with the DPRK.

The greatest present threat to the U.S.-Japan alliance, then, has not come about over security concerns but rather over political rhetoric and positioning. On top of a diplomatic shock of Japan being seemingly bypassed in strategic dialogues with North Korea, and the knowledge vacuum regarding Japan and East Asia more generally in the White House, a domestic political scandal seriously limits Japan’s responses for the proposed Kim-Trump summit3Michael Bosack, Tokyo Review, March 21 2018, “Toward a New Era of Revolving Door Prime Ministers?. Japan may simply lack the political bandwidth and flexibility, in the present moment, to deal with North Korea’s shifts in attitude and the rapidly changing situation regarding the upcoming summits.

Whether or not the U.S.-DPRK summit meeting will even happen remains an open question, but Prime Minister Abe’s ability to formulate a flexible response has been reduced by the diplomatic snub of Japan not being notified in advance of these plans. The appointment of Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and the changes in the National Security Council are a further exogenous variable for Japan to consider in trying to initiate its own talks with the DPRK. Foreign Minister Kono’s visit to the United States and the Abe-Trump meeting later this month will help to clarify Japan’s North Korean policies; but the possibility of a genuine “Trump Shock” with major implications for domestic politics and alliance management alike should not be taken lightly.

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Leo Lin received his M.A. in International Relations from Waseda University and his B.A. in Asian Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Currently a researcher based in Tokyo, his research interests include security policies in East Asia, and Chinese foreign policy with a focus on economic statecraft.

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