After the year of a perceived imminent crisis over the Korean Peninsula in 2017, the year 2018 so far has been witnessing signs of reduced tensions. While dialogues are positive steps towards a more stable order in the Peninsula, prospects are unclear and cautious preparation is still necessary to avoid disastrous consequences.
One may argue that China-Russia calls for suspension of military actions towards dialogues worked well. However, there are other possible reasons: Kim Jong-un started dialogue initiatives even though the US-South Korean forces did not drop a plan of joint military exercises. One theory says Kim, having claimed North Korea completed armaments to deter the US, switched into an economic development course. Others argue that North Korea now needs to soften the stance facing the international economic pressure and the military one from the US.
If arguments that pressure is effective for dialogues point to some of the truth, then excessive relaxation of pressure would be counterproductive for dialogues. It seems South Korea and the US are careful to control the extent of pressure. The US-South Korea exercises “Foal Eagle” began on April 1, although the schedule was delayed after the PyeongChang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and the scale was reduced. While that showed that US offensive would be less imminent, the US-South Korean forces still need routine exercises to prepare for possible contingencies if situations would become dangerous later.
Japan is also a player to show that countermeasures are possible if tensions rise again. In November 2017, Japan and South Korea extended the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which enables effective information cooperation around the Peninsula. The history of this GSOMIA shows the real cooperation in contrast with apparent political frictions between Seoul and Tokyo. In 2012 Lee Myung-bak Administration prepared the agreement but canceled the signing on the planned date for fear of public opposition in South Korea. In 2016 Park Geun-hye Administration restarted negotiations and reached to the signing. The next President Moon Jae-in did not abolish the agreement, as he had called for as a presidential candidate, and the GSOMIA survives in 2018. Despite repeated political frictions between Seoul and Tokyo, wise and patient people in both governments were finally able to implement what is necessary.
On April 10, 2018, Foreign Ministers of Japan and South Korea, Taro Kono and Kang Kyung-wha, agreed on enhancing cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the US, including continued pressure until North Korea implements concrete steps for denuclearization. On April 12, Mike Pompeo, nominated for the new US Secretary of State, made it clear that the US will not reward North Korea before it actually renounces its nuclear weapons.
Then came Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the US On April 17 and 18, he and Donald Trump spent more than ten hours to discuss candidly various issues in Mar-a-Largo, Florida. Trade is a difficult issue for both to agree on, and Trump still prefers a better deal to resolve the trade deficit problem on the bilateral basis, rather than a multilateral framework such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the other hand, that trade issue did not undermine Trump’s endorsement of Abe’s ideas to keep pressing North Korea on nuclear-missile issues as well as the abduction issue. Now Tokyo is filled with media reports critical of Abe on the assumption that he is responsible for every problem occurring in the government, and accordingly few writers want to say “Abe and Trump do a good job.” Yet one reality is that no Japanese politician has a motivation and power to drag Abe down now, well ahead of the next elections.
Another reality is that it is still difficult for Kim Jong-un to believe he can manipulate differences among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington for his favor, facing sustaining cooperation among the three. Their efforts for the optimum balance of dialogue and pressure raise the probability to convince Kim Jong-un that his tangible steps will be necessary in the talks to avoid unfavorable consequences for his regime. Otherwise, a wrong signal of appeasement might cause another cycle of dangerous tensions, as were repeated many times in history.
Views expressed here are those of Hiroshi Yamazoe alone, not of any organization such as NIDS or the Japanese Government.