Trump-Abe Meeting: Sun in Eagle’s Claws?

On Thursday, June 7, Donald Trump held a meeting with Premier Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe on the eve of the US-DPRK summit, scheduled on June 12 in Singapore. The meeting’s agenda, its results and asymmetric relations between the US and Japan – these are the topics discussed in the interview with Dmitry Streltsov, head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow-based MGIMO University, leading researcher of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies.

Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington and his meeting with Donald Trump took place in preparation to the US-DRPK summit expected on June 12 in Singapore. It is assumed that the American president has to inform his key allies on the intentions of the US during this summit – in particular, to coordinate his foreign policy with Japan as its key ally in East Asia.

The fact is that Japan is the only country marginalized during the process of warming of relations with the DPRK. Kim Jong Un either had, or will have meetings with the countries which have taken part in the six-side talks: he met Moon Jae-In and Xi Jinping twice, hosted a delegation from Russia last week, he is going to meet Trump – and only Japan lacks any achievements in the field.

The list of Japan’s concerns on the eve of Trump-Kim summit contains three points. First of all, they are afraid of the possibility that the US and the DPRK could have a deal on restrictions to be put on the North Korean missile program. Abe fears that Washington could provide Pyongyang with an implicit permission to keep medium-range missiles that can reach Japan in exchange for refusal to develop long-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US Pacific coast. In addition, Abe fears that Trump could legalize the weapons of mass destruction the DPRK actually has, that is to make it clear that under certain conditions the US will not insist on denuclearization, and de facto recognize the DPRK’s nuclear status in exchange for some counter-moves.

The third point Abe cares about is the question of abducted persons. It is well known that in the 1970s – 1980s, about seventeen Japanese citizens, as the Japanese side claims, were abducted by North Korean special services. The fate of at least five people remains unknown. Tokyo addresses this question at any meetings dealing with contacts with the DPRK. What Abe is doing is convincing Trump to address it as well at his summit with Kim.

To sum up, at his meeting with Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe tries to receive from him some promises on these matters considered by the Japanese side as the most important. As for the US, it wants to convince Abe that it is not going to have any “separate deal” with the DPRK, so it will not abandon Japan.

Behind the closed doors, economic issues were probably addressed, too. In particular, the meeting may have addressed the steel and aluminium tariffs the Trump administration announced against everyone, including Japan. It feels discriminated and tries to persuade the US into making some concessions. The issue of tariffs on Japanese cars is also an important one, since Donald Trump promised to raise it during his campaign, having not done it yet. Generally, if the US president represents a protectionist line in the international economy, the prime minister of Japan tries to incline his American partners to free market policy.

At the news conference following the meeting, the parties did their best to demonstrate the unity of their positions, stating that the US would consider its ally’s interests. However, I do not think that the Japanese side has remained satisfied with that.

In addition, Japan will make its own efforts to contact North Korea and to hold an Abe-Kim summit. Japan fells isolated: at the one hand, it is painful for it to be marginalized; at the other – Abe is being criticized now for asking another country for help with the kidnapped people. Japan considers it shameful. Therefore, Abe would try to increase his own political capital – in particular, by launching initiatives towards North Korea, whose particular content is still too early to predict.

Considering the United States’ position, the Trump administration is very unpredictable; it acts uncompromisingly and poorly coordinates its moves with the allies. One could expect all sorts of diplomatic surprises from Trump, but his meeting with Shinzo Abe testifies to his wish to coordinate their positions in line with the security treaty provisions.

It is hard to say if the US will consider the Japanese position. Generally, the American strategy is that if the Trump-Kim summit succeeds, the US could offer the DPRK a “carrot” of some economic assistance packages to involve it in the economic processes of East Asia and relieve tension. In this strategy, Japan, along with South Korea, would certainly be provided with a sponsor’s role.

It is still too early to talk about this, but the results of the June 12 meeting will show the direction of the process. If it is positive – that is, the DRPK agrees to some concessions, – Japan could succeed in raising its status. It will probably be about settling the problem of the colonial past: Japan and North Korea still do not have diplomatic relations, so if the Japanese side provides some economic assistance, it could help normalize the relations between the two.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.