TOKYO — North Korea’s East Asia neighbors — Japan, China and South Korea — have a shared goal of denuclearizing the peninsula, but what may come out of Tuesday’s summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has different and possibly conflicting implications for their security, economic and geopolitical interests.
Japan, still unable to meet Kim directly, is relying on Trump for almost everything from its security to an accounting of its citizens who were abducted decades ago by the North; South Koreans remain skeptical but also embrace hope that a positive outcome of the talks could push forward a Korean War peace treaty and further cooperation; and China, a U.S. rival that is increasing its regional presence, is seeking to continue exerting its influence on North Korea.
Here are the views and concerns of the three stakeholders:
Japan, a U.S. ally whose diplomatic policies largely mirror Washington’s, is relying on Trump because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been unable to meet Kim. Japan worries about being marginalized by other regional players who have increased their interaction with North Korea. Abe doesn’t want Trump to strike a compromise on North Korea’s missile program that would leave Japan exposed to shorter-range missiles that do not reach the U.S. mainland, or would relieve pressure on North Korea before it takes concrete steps toward complete denuclearization. If Trump focuses on long-range missiles and a peace treaty, which might lead to a reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea, it would pose a security risk for Japan, analysts say. “That would put Japan in a very, very dismal position moving forward,” said Stephen Nagy, an international relations professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.
The best scenario for Japan would be a commitment by Trump to diplomatic engagement to achieve North Korea’s complete denuclearization and his help in getting the North to make progress on the abduction issue. Japan says at least 17 Japanese were abducted by North Korea to train its spies in Japanese language and culture. North Korea has acknowledged abducting 13 and allowed five of them to visit Japan in 2002, where all five remained. Families of the other abductees are getting old and many see the Trump-Kim summit as their last chance for a breakthrough in determining their fate. Japan hopes to hold talks with North Korea after a successful Trump-Kim summit, and Abe voiced his willingness to do so Thursday after meeting Trump in Washington. Japan says it would normalize diplomatic ties and provide economic aid as rewards for a North Korean commitment in both the nuclear and abduction issues. Unless Japan develops a new strategy in dealing with North Korea, a summit between Abe and Kim is not expected until considerably later, and North Korea, which can expect economic aid from China and South Korea, is seen as in no rush to turn to Japan.
Hopeful but skeptical south
South Koreans have been split between hope and doubt after seeing the seesaw developments leading up to the summit. They hope that improved relations between the U.S. and North Korea would ease tensions, adding momentum for inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation. Some even speculate that Trump and Kim may discuss a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-1953 Korean War, replacing the current armistice. A peace treaty, however, would raise North Korea’s long-time demand for a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea. Skeptics say that’s too much to consider and that the priority should be getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
The summit is only the start of a long process, but its success is “critically important” for South Korean President Moon Jae-in because he has made inter-Korea negotiations a centerpiece of his administration and has staked much political capital on the effort, said John Delury, an associate professor of East Asian Studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University. He said a successful summit would create more room for the two Korean leaders to move forward on inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation. Reducing the threat of conflict is the initial goal, which could be followed by cultural, humanitarian and economic steps. Moon held talks with Kim in April at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two sides, getting Kim’s initial offer of a summit with Kim.
Trump has long leaned on China to convince North Korea to moderate its actions despite protests from Beijing and some experts that China’s influence may be overstated. But the success or failure of the summit will be seen by some as an indication of China’s status as a major player in Northeast Asia, something Beijing has long craved. A positive outcome in Singapore may also ease pressure on Beijing in its simmering trade disputes with Washington and complaints over its militarization of disputed South China Sea islands.
Beijing wants to ensure its interests are preserved in the negotiations, namely that no outcome leads to a pro-U.S. united Korea and the stationing of potentially hostile troops along its border. In the near term, China has repeatedly called for a freeze in large-scale U.S.-South Korea military exercises in return for a halt to the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Beijing also backs the North’s call for a “phased and synchronous” approach to denuclearization, as opposed to Washington’s demand for an instant, total and irreversible end to the North’s nuclear programs.
China wants to see the Kim regime adopt Chinese-style economic reforms and has pressured South Korea to remove a U.S. anti-missile system that it regards as threatening China’s nuclear deterrent.
Associated Press journalists Jung-yoon Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.