What Does Japan Expect from Talks with US Next Week?

Trade and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs will be the key topics for Japan during U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe next week.

Earlier this month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga spoke on Japan’s priorities for the upcoming meeting. He said addressing how to handle the North Korean missile situation is high on the agenda, as is trade.

“We anticipate discussions on the importance of free trade — since that is of interest to us,” he said.

Trump hit Japan and many other countries with aluminum and steel trade restrictions last month. Japan has been asking that the restrictions to be lifted.

“The U.S. wants Japan to complain about the tariff and then wants to talk about a bilateral treaty,” said Hajime Izumi, professor of international relations at Tokyo International University. “From the Japan side, they aren’t interested in doing a bilateral FTA [Free Trade Agreement]. This is not going to be easy.”

That’s because Japan has just signed on to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with 10 other countries. Critics say Abe is unlikely to coax Trump to reconsider joining the trade pact, and Trump may see similar results on a bilateral proposal.

Another key topic: the North Korea missile situation. Critics say Japan will remind Trump to negotiate on all types of missiles, and not just long-range missiles that would reach American soil.

“While the U.S. is trying to address the issue of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, from the Japanese perspective, what is more important is the medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of 1,300 kilometers, capable of reaching most parts of Japan, including Tokyo,” said Narushige Michishita, professor of securities and international studies, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

Meanwhile, some Japanese analysts observed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month indicated North Korea’s nervousness about the upcoming talks with Washington.

“Eventually, [the U.S. and North Korea] may conclude that all the diplomatic efforts have been exhausted,” said Kunihiko Miyake, president of the Foreign Policy Institute in Tokyo. “That’s when the Americans might or could contemplate a possibly harsher, more physical measure against North Korea. That’s what North Koreans are most concerned about.”

Miyake raises the possibility of a meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as indicated in an envoy meeting with top Russian diplomats April 10.

“[North Korea is] fully aware of the military disadvantages vis-à-vis against the Americans,” said Miyake. “That’s why [North Korea needs] to talk to the Russians and Chinese to prevent that kind of worst-case scenario from happening.”

Miyake said North Koreans had nothing to offer to Russia or China but “their existence, as a buffer against the U.S. control over the Korean peninsula.”

Abduction issue

Many critics say a sure topic will be the Japan abduction issue, a domestic priority rivaling the North Korean missiles in importance.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted in 2002 that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970 and ’80s. Several were returned, but Tokyo has since demanded more information.

“There is a possibility some of [the abductees are] still there, living in North Korea,” said Michishita. “So we have to take them back. It’s a real issue.”

Another point critics are betting on is that true denuclearization of North Korea will be a long way away, even if a Trump-Kim meeting happens and even if North Korea says it will denuclearize.

“Trump must have been informed or convinced by now that the word ‘denuclearization’ has many meanings,” Miyake said. “Denuclearization of the North means dismantling North Korean missiles, but denuclearization of the Korean peninsula — which was agreed upon with China — means they want to basically kick the U.S. out of the Korean peninsula.”

Trump and Abe are expected to agree to continue applying maximum pressure against North Korea until talks produce meaningful progress.

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