Thursday, April 19, 2018

The View from Japan on Trump and the Korean Crisis


Kim Jong-il, with whose government the U.S. negotiated the 1994 agreement

-by Reese Erlich

My recent visit to Japan drove home one main point: President Donald Trump has managed to piss off just about everyone in that nation.

After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent the last several months stroking Trump’s ego and stressing the similarity of their conservative political views, Trump waived aluminum and steel tariffs for Canada, Australia, and the European Union-- but not Japan. And Trump caught Japanese leaders by surprise when he agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Japanese of different political persuasions don’t trust Trump and they voice doubt over whether the talks between Trump and Kim will bear results.

“They are both unpredictable characters,” Koichi Nakano, professor of political science and dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Tokyo’s Sophia University, told me. “But Kim has a method to his madness. Trump is driven by ego.”

Sue Kim, a reporter with the rightwing South Korean daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo, told me South Koreans and Japanese are worried about the Trump Team’s previous calls for a pre-emptive military attack on Pyongyang. “Trump is sending out confusing messages,” she told me. “That’s the scary part for us. What is the end goal?”

President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong-un on April 27. Then Trump and Kim are supposed to meet in May or June. But the United States has sabotaged previous accords, and that was before North Korea had nuclear weapons.

Back in 1994, the United States President Bill Clinton and then President Kim Jong-il, father of the country’s current leader, signed an agreement that allowed North Korea to develop nuclear power but not atomic weapons-- a historic breakthrough after years of hot and cold war.

North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program while western powers agreed to help it construct two light-water nuclear reactors, whose spent fuel couldn’t be used to develop bombs. While waiting for the reactors to be built, the West would provide heavy fuel oil to power the country’s electric grid. In response, the United States pledged to eliminate sanctions and remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

North Korea lived up to its end of the bargain, but hawkish Republicans and Democrats didn’t like Clinton’s “Agreed Framework,” claiming it would allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Congress refused to approve the full cost of fuel oil, and the western allies never built the promised reactors.

The Clinton Administration only lifted some sanctions and didn’t take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Washington was ready to scuttle the agreement entirely, even blaming North Korea for the failure.

In 2002, Bush came up with his cockamamie campaign against the “Axis of Evil,” which included Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and North Korea. An orthodox Marxist-Leninist state, a nationalist dictatorship and an theocratic Islamic regime were somehow in cahoots to destroy the United States. The Agreed Framework was buried.

Had Washington carried out the signed agreement, the current U.S.-Korea crisis could have been avoided. Instead, in 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb, claiming it had the right to defend itself from outside attack. The United States still has 28,500 troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and navy vessels carrying nuclear missiles cruise nearby.

North Korea’s dictatorial regime has angered ordinary Japanese in a variety of ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, the country’s soldiers kidnapped Japanese citizens and forced them to become language instructors and spies. For years, North Korea officials denied the kidnappings. Now they say all the victims have been returned to Japan or have died. Conservative Japanese politicians say some are still missing, and use the issue to stir up support for a stronger military.

Last year, North Korea test fired conventional ballistic missiles over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean. While the missiles weren’t aimed at Japan, they scared people. Prime Minister Abe won the 2017 parliamentary elections, in part, by playing on fears of a North Korean attack.

Abe and other conservatives use concerns about a Korean attack to justify expansion of Japan's military.

Leftist opponents of Abe say Japan doesn't need an offensive military. The North Korea threat is exaggerated, according to Professor Nakano.

The Trump Administration claims North Korea poses an immediate threat to the United States because its missiles may reach the U.S. mainland. In reality, North Korea is highly unlikely to launch an offensive attack since any first strike would bring a devastating response by the United States and South Korea, wiping out Pyongyang.

“North Korea is not going to launch a missile and end its regime,” Nakano said. “It sees the missiles as defense against the United States... If Iraq or Libya had nuclear weapons, the United States wouldn’t have attacked.”

Conservative reporter Kim strongly opposes the North Korean regime, but doesn't think it will act irrationally. “I used to think Kim was a crazy maniac,” she said. “He is controlling, but rational. Above all Kim wants his regime to survive."

North Korea will not likely give up its nuclear weapons. The best outcome of negotiations would halt expansion of the nuclear program in return for economic aid and normalization of relations with the west. At worst, the talks could fall apart in mutual recriminations and heighten the possibility of war.

The choice is up to Washington.

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At 9:55 PM, Blogger Larry Piltz said...

Thank you. Really appreciated reading the chronology you provided of the Clinton negotiations and sad to read how such an opportunity was squandered even during Clinton's presidency (it sounds like) and then blown off entirely once Junior became president. It appears the U.S. government still treats negotiations with 'non-white' nations the way they approached (and still approach) treaties with Native American Indians. Iran is getting the 'Indian treatment' now too with another nuclear deal.

At 6:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Japan and Korea are the only industrial nations still under some limited control of the US government. American corporatists drool over the opportunity to remove two successful competitors from the contest. The smart money in both nations should be on a plan to cut the US loose and go their own way. They should have figured out by now that the US will sacrifice them to gain additional control over the global economy.

At 7:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, 6:16, the us, china and japan all really want NK to remain as it is, or was before the nuclearization. They all fear a reconciled Korean peninsula and its potential as an economic dynamo as a "too big" manufacturing and economic competitor.

More anecdotal proof that Clinton was a dreadful president (and human being). Even when getting something possibly correct, couldn't stay out of his own way. Just like his personal life.

Larry's comment is almost certainly salient. Can anyone presume that trump's attitude toward Japan is NOT racist? And what does that portend for the Un summit?

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


South Korea is very busy attempting to form some kind of an agreement with the North despite what the USA might want. Japan is tossing Abe onto the ash heap of Imperial militarism, and China only has to be patient, continue on the same course with what was once known as the Third World, and and they will achieve economic superiority over Uncle Scam in just a few years. The more Trump pisses on every other nation on Earth, the faster this will happen.

Forget about the UN. The US has kept the UN impotent throughout its history, and the world will soon decide that they need a more effective organ of international interaction.


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