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Japan faces tougher national security environment following US-N. Korea summit

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions from reporters in front of his official residence on June 12, 2018, after telephone talks with U.S. President Donald Trump. (Mainichi)

The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 in Singapore produced little detail about how to proceed with denuclearization and dismantling North Korea's ballistic missile program, leaving little hope for an improved national security involvement for Japan.

If the United States chooses to proceed with negotiations on the elimination of North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, Japan's geopolitical position could become worse than now. Future talks between Washington and Pyongyang are likely to substantially affect Tokyo's national security policy.

A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official did not sound positive about the outcome of the summit. "I still cannot believe the meeting actually took place, and I am skeptical about the realization of denuclearization." The official's remark is a reflection of North Korea's repeated failures to keep past promises on eliminating its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang voiced its intention to denuclearize in the 1994 framework agreement with the United States and in the joint statement in 2005 of the Six-Party Talks involving its neighbors and the United States.

Hiroyasu Akutsu, senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies at the Ministry of Defense, expressed concern about the fact that the joint statement signed by Trump and Kim on June 12 did not include any deadline for achieving denuclearization. "It's possible that negotiations for denuclearization will be used to buy time for the continuation of nuclear and missile development," he said.

Even President Trump himself emphasized in the press conference on June 12 after the summit in Singapore that getting rid of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons will take time. Some experts suggest that it could take more than a decade, and as long as the process continues, Japan will remain under the North Korean threat of ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan with nuclear warheads, including short- to middle-range missiles such as the Nodong or Scud-ER.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to obtain agreements at Group of Seven summits of industrialized nations and Japan-U.S. summit talks on the elimination of all forms of North Korea's ballistic missiles. However, people in the national security circle now talk about the possibility that President Trump is seeking to achieve the removal of ICBMs before the upcoming midterm elections in the U.S. in a bid to appeal to voters.

President Trump also mentioned the possibility of freezing joint military exercises with South Korea, introducing a new factor potentially affecting the national security environment around Japan. If an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War is declared and U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, numbering over 20,000, are partially or completely withdrawn, the security environment surrounding Northeast Asian countries including China and Russia could greatly change.

Professor Lee Jong Won of Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, a specialist in inter-Korean relations, sees the possibility that China, a major backer of North Korea, may strongly seek the withdrawal of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. "We need to watch China's moves closely," he said.

Some experts say that Japan may now need to adjust its strategy of relying heavily on the United States and seek more support in Asia in carrying out its North Korea policy. Prime Minister Abe has sought to pressure North Korea to compromise on nuclear and missile issues, but the Trump administration has turned toward promoting dialogue with Pyongyang. President Trump has even said that he doesn't want to use the term "maximum pressure" in connection with North Korea, highlighting differences between Tokyo and Washington in their stance toward Pyongyang.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Political News Department)

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