I am happy that the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are talking once again—this is indeed a positive development. We should however, be realistic about achievement and outcome possibilities. As a wise man on this subject matter once said; “talks about talks are good—start there and do not promise nor expect too much”. Realistically, neither we nor anyone else can expect to solve everything in one day. Locking the DPRK into a more fixed structure of dialogue for the long term; that is ultimately more positive. The administration also needs to acknowledge that the DPRK has achieved nuclear capability—or “nuclear breakout”—and we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. With this in mind we have heard perilously little about any plan or strategy, beyond the hyperbole of complete and verifiable denuclearization—which has very different meanings depending on if you are the U.S. or the DPRK. While we might wish to worry about the dynamic that got us to where we are, the summit commitments (assuming this summit does go ahead) and implementation arrangements are what’s important. What will be on the table with respect to denuclearization—weapons, fissile material, production facilities, hydrogen isotope production, etc.—with what access for monitoring and verification, over what time frame, and what does the U.S. offer that might undercut either of our alliances in Northeast Asia? The rest, CW/BW, ballistic missiles, human rights, will be nice to address. But if you get the nuclear part, you can work on the rest, as long as both sides have handled this maturely enough to continue having a dialogue, which means the maturity of settling for not a grand deal, but slow incremental progress. No big splash in the media, but little—seemingly mundane but yet important—steps forward, that often will not fit the news media hyperbole or narrative. And yes, we ought to forget about getting everything before we give anything. That said, we should (and I think we do) have clear lines we should not cross, such as never agreeing to remove our troops from the Korean peninsula. But the U.S. needs to be realistic about what it can “live with” in terms of a result or outcome. We need more than a promise of this or that but can’t expect denuclearization either. Our expectations and demands (even the public ones) need to be in line with some modicum of reality. We should caution the DPRK about closing or destroying its nuclear weapons underground test facility at this time and access to it should be part of the negotiations. While it might be a safety risk, the real reason they want to close it now, prior to negotiating, is of course to prevent us from inspecting it. Unfortunately, that is like letting a criminal investigate his own crime scene. As the administration has not, as far as I know, mentioned this, I can only wonder about its acuity. Then of course there is the issue of President Trump himself. How will he react if he does not get what he wants or if the DPRK concessions do not meet his grand expectations? What would he do then? Walk away and accuse the DPRK of refusing to agree to his sensible demands? If things collapse who would be to blame? Frankly, the U.S. would have to shoulder some of that blame; we would have upset our allies and given credibility on the world stage to the Kim regime, without getting anything in return. We would have caused long-term harm to our regional relationships and to our image on the world stage as well as let the DPRK slip through yet again—while gaining some sympathy and relief from our sanctions and pressure from its regional neighbors. Such an outcome would be two steps back and an embarrassment for the United States. Then of course, there is our most important regional ally, Japan, a nation that we seem to do our best to neglect in terms of both our and their national security. Having worked in Japan for some 14+ years I have seen this debate and concern on part of the Japanese before—but that makes it no less legitimate. The Japanese have an imperative interest in the region and are a key ally of ours, without whom any comprehensive deal touching on anything of significance in the region cannot be struck, or much less sustained. We cannot leave Japan behind on this—and if we do and fail, it is just as bad as if we do and succeed. If we fail Japan will point to their proposed more comprehensive approach as more realistic and point out that they have the institutional memory to see the situation for what it is. They would imply that they cannot trust our judgement, and that we have thus made the situation worse for our partners. If the summit is a success; it’s still a negative for our alliance. The Japanese view would be America made a deal with little or no consultation and without regard for Japanese concerns or needs. Such an outcome would also reduce Japanese leverage to pursue important interests (such as abductees) and security concerns with the DPRK. Chances are the DPRK under such a situation would only be more intransigent and aggressive towards Japan. The narrative in japan, in either case, will be that America ignored its concerns. It’s a catch 22. At the end of the day, what is more important: Japan’s alliance or getting something menial or nothing out of the DPRK? Why not at the very least comprehensively coordinate and consult with our Japanese partners? Or better yet, try to arrange for a follow-up 5-way summit, including the U.S., the DPRK, Japan, South Korea, and China. Ironically, by not including Japan we end up giving the Abe government a helping hand politically—while simultaneously harming our relationship. Abe’s cabinet, which is in a precarious situation due to several corruption, sexual harassment and record keeping scandals, gets an easy political win. Many Japanese citizens have criticized Abe for not managing to negotiate Japan’s inclusion in the summit in some shape or form. Perversely, we are now giving Abe the opportunity to turn around and say; “look I was smart, the U.S. got nothing and I did not have to be in the middle”. He can thus say his leadership has proven wiser, even if in reality it has not, in fact he was simply ignored by his closest ally. And yet, this does not ultimately help our U.S.–Japan alliance. We have been here before and it seems the current administration is reluctant to heed any advice from the past. I am of the belief, that we should talk to the DPRK, but right now Kim is playing a smarter game than Trump and succeeding in undermining our heft in the region. About the Author: Nils G. Bildt, MA-IPS, is the President of CTSS Japan and has Previously Served as an Advisor to Japanese Parliamentarians and Cabinet Members Regarding National Security Issues.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.