Prime Minister Must Forge Relationship of Trust with US President

The Illusory North Korean-American Secret Talks

On Feb. 7, 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the prime minister’s office and spoke with then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Afterward, at a joint press conference, they said, “As long as North Korea does not demonstrate sincere intentions and concrete actions toward denuclearization, we cannot expect meaningful dialogue.”* After announcing that he would “unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever,” Pence visited South Korea on Feb. 9 to participate in the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics. There, North Koreans, including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jong Un, were in attendance at the invitation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, in reality Pence had been directed by President Donald Trump to hold secret talks with the North Koreans. But because the tough statements on North Korea were considered problematic, it is said that the secret talks were canceled about two hours before they were about to begin. This episode is recounted in “Rage,” the new book by The Washington Post’s associate editor Bob Woodward. In the end, one could say that Pence and Abe essentially defied Trump’s wishes at their press conference. Abe and high-ranking officials from both the Japanese and American governments cooperated in order to control Trump’s unpredictable action.

“My fucking generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.” Woodward’s book quotes Trump saying this to an aide in 2017. It also portrays him being merciless to South Korea, an ally.

In 2018, when then CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang, Kim conveyed his approval of continued joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises through confidants to the American side. But in Singapore that June, Trump suddenly announced his intention to call off the exercises at a press conference immediately after the first U.S.-North Korea summit because he had a problem with their high cost. There had been no discussion of this with South Korea. Later, the scale of the exercises was reduced, prompting apprehension that it would negatively affect the responsiveness of the two militaries. On the other hand, North Korea considers the continuation of the exercises to be a violation of Trump’s promise, and it is still conditioning further negotiations with the United States on their cancellation.

What Are North Korea’s Calculations?

When Trump visited South Korea, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea explained that South Korea pays more than 90% of the expenses foe America’s bases there and buys a large quantity of American-made weapons, but Trump’s fixation with money could not be shaken.

According to many former high-level American officials involved in negotiations with North Korea, that country doesn’t want American forces to withdraw from the South; instead, it hopes that they stay as a check against getting swallowed up by China. According to [Woodward’s] book, Pompeo didn’t hear anything about American forces in Korea from Kim, and the Americans concluded that Kim wants them to stay.

Nevertheless, Trump repeatedly and baldly told his advisers about his intention to withdraw American troops if South Korea didn’t dramatically increase its burden of the expenses of keeping them stationed there. “The whole world is using us.” “We can change this right now. I’d gladly get out of Korea,” Trump said.*

This is a matter of concern for Japan, too. It is likely that Trump will soon demand a huge increase in Japan’s share of the expenses of stationing American troops, among other things. The Abe government controlled Trump’s unpredictable behavior through personal relations between the heads of state. Will the new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, be able to control Trump?

Woodward’s book also relates how excited Trump appeared when he met with Kim surrounded by the international media’s cameras. When the author repeatedly questioned him about what happened during the summit, Trump kept praising pictures of himself shaking hands with the North Korean leader. Rather than the contents of the summit, he brags about how visible he was and his friendly relationship with Kim.

The Most Important Foreign Policy Issue for Japan

According to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, Trump has always confused his personal relations with foreign heads of state and America’s international relations with negotiating partners, and cannot distinguish between them. Trump believes that if only he could forge a good relationship with Kim, North Korean-American relations would also improve.

To reverse this thinking, it is of the utmost importance for Japan’s head of government to build close ties with Trump. The most important foreign policy issue for the Suga government is to build a friendship with the American president. Whoever becomes president of the U.S., Japan must respond gracefully. It cannot optimistically assume that America will always be Japan’s friend. The Japanese government should come together and assist the American president.

Woodward’s book quotes Andrew Kim, head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, as saying that North Korea thinks it should start negotiations with new American administrations as soon as they begin. Negotiations with America take time, but an American presidential term is only four years. If the administration changes, it could scrap negotiations that have been held until now.

Even if North Korean-American relations fluctuate quickly as a result of the November presidential election, Japan must quickly prepare so it can react smoothly.

*Editor’s note: This quotation, accurately translated from the original, could not be verified.

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