DECISIVE MOMENT FOR BOLD ACTION AS JAPAN FACES SEA CHANGE IN FAR EASTERN SITUATION
The joint communique issued by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un following the first US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12 reminded me of a new building that claims to be earthquake-resistant but will in reality collapse at the first sign of a minor tremor.
The absence of concrete agreement on how to achieve what is purported to be the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” instantly caused me to have doubts about the statement.
Nowhere was there a reference to a “Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization” of North Korea—“CVID.” Instead, it referred to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” three times.
The “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula presupposes the South’s departure from America’s nuclear umbrella when North Korea implements denuclearization. In other words, this scheme reflects the long-held Chinese and North Korean demand that the US-South Korean alliance be dissolved.
South Korea has been shielded by its alliance with the US over the years. Most of its presidents have highly valued the arrangement, but the South under its incumbent left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in, is a different story today. The nation has undergone a stunningly drastic political change.
Local elections held on June 13 were almost completely obscured by the Singapore summit that had been held the day before with great fanfare and global media attention. In the elections, which the Japanese media scarcely covered, Moon’s ruling leftwing Democratic Party scored a landslide victory.
Last July, Moon promoted Kim Myeong-Soo, a liberal and relatively inexperienced judge, to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Korea. Kim has been at odds with 13 other judges of the highest Korean court for attempting to bring a criminal charge against his predecessor for his alleged “unlawful activities” while in office. Comments Hong Hyun, editor-in-chief of the Japanese language One Korea Daily published in Japan: “The South Korean judiciary is showing definite signs of leaning to the left; a fierce battle is under way.”
In South Korea, leftwing forces have joined hands with Moon to gain control of the government. These Pro-Pyongyang forces have dominated the nation’s mass media and educational circles. And now these forces are closing in on the legislature and threatening to control the judiciary. As a result, South Korea is transforming itself into an entirely different country. We Japanese must bear this more clearly in mind.
Trump Calls Military Exercises “War Games”
One wonders why the historic Singapore summit was scheduled for just a day before the South Korean local elections in the first place. In the South, the popular view is that Moon and Kim obviously colluded with each other in setting the date.
The effects of the summit on the elections were enormous. Hailed enthusiastically across the South as the “first responder” for his efforts to save the US-North Korea summit, Moon saw his approval ratings rise above 70% as his party won an easy victory and the conservative forces critical of Jong-un suffered a crushing defeat.
Warns Cho Gap-che, one of South Korea’s most respected conservative commentators: “South Korea is headed for a national suicide.”
Having further solidified his power base, Moon is expected to accelerate his long-held plans to form a federal government representing the two Koreas. A retrogression—or a dissolution, if at all possible—of the US-South Korea alliance is what Moon and the South Korean leftwing forces are after, not to mention China and North Korea. Needless to say, Russia would also wholeheartedly welcome such a development.
How knowledgeable Trump is of the situation in the South is questionable, but he in any event suggested during the post-summit news conference a suspension of joint US-South Korean military drills, calling them “war games.”
Trump’s reasons for suggesting the suspension: “The ‘war games’ are very expensive, and I think …very provocative.” As for America’s B-1B bombers that flew from Guam to international air space off Wonsan, North Korea, in a show of America’s superior power, he said: “…I know a lot about airplanes; six and a half hours (from Guam)… it’s very expensive, and I don’t like it…”
I view Trump’s propensity to assess America’s security strategies and military activities on a dollar-for-dollar basis as tantamount to hanging out a white flag of surrender to the North’s patron, China, before negotiations have even begun. Top security experts in the inner circles of the Japanese government had this to say: “Even in the US, experts say Trump’s idea to suspend the drills is ridiculous.”
But an American president’s words carry extraordinary weight. The White House subsequently made Trump’s decision official by announcing the suspension of “Freedom Guardian” drills slated for August “unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should.”
During his post-summit news conference in Singapore, Trump also touched on the possibility of bringing the 32,000 South Korea-based American soldiers home “at some point.” He stressed: “I used to say this during my campaign, as you know, probably better than most—I want to get our soldiers out.”
Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton favors a possible withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula for a different reason. He recently asserted that by transferring Korea-based US troops to Japan or Taiwan, they will no longer be held as “hostages” on the Peninsula.
There is also a growing belief among some in America that their nation should prioritize Taiwan’s security over South Korea. Those in this camp contend that Taiwan’s strategic importance to America is greater than that of South Korea because China will dominate the entire South China Sea if it occupies Taiwan. If the US maintains a strategic base in Busan, this thinking goes, it can withdraw the rest of its troops from the peninsula.
Protecting the People
Needless to say, there are Americans who are against America’s withdrawal. But still, if Trump makes up his mind to bring the soldiers home from Korea, Japan most likely will be alone among the members of the Six-Party Talks on the Korean Peninsula—including the US, China, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea—to openly oppose American withdrawal.
Withdrawing American troops would undoubtedly change the geopolitical situation of the Far East significantly. What would become of Japan then? With South Korea expected to forsake the US nuclear umbrella, Japan would become the only beneficiary of America’s nuclear protection. We must seriously ask ourselves if we should continue to rely on American protection.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is credited with having originally envisioned an Indo-Pacific strategy, which has since been incorporated into Washington’s policy for the area. Abe also maneuvered to get 11 Pacific nations, minus the US, to sign a new Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement last April after the Trump administration had abruptly withdrawn America from the old agreement. He also took the lead in putting together a new trade agreement with the EU (the EPA), and was also instrumental in getting the United Nations Security Council to adopt stringent economic sanctions against North Korea.
Convinced that Japan’s values are shared universally by members of the international community, Abe has strived earnestly to contribute to construction of a stable international order, demonstrating solid diplomatic and security strategies that clearly show the path Japan has chosen to follow as a mature and responsible democracy.
And yet, Japan has been unable to resolve the abductee issue with North Korea. Over the past four decades it has not been able to obtain the return of its citizens. However many splendid propositions it may put on the table, a country is not functioning as a responsible state unless it can properly protect its own citizens.
Trump has taken Japan to the threshold of possible negotiations with the North on the abductees. But anything can happen on the Korean Peninsula, including a possible withdrawal of American troops. America may be outmaneuvered by the North. The Far Eastern situation has undergone a sea change. We Japanese must clearly come to grips with that and resolve to obtain the abductees’ release by transforming ourselves into a nation that can employ diplomacy backed by real power. The road may be long, but in order to achieve that goal, a revision of our constitution will be a necessary first step.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 808 in the June 28, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)